How Childhood Trauma Can Lead To Addicted Adults

Addiction seems to be running rampant in the world today. Throughout the planet, approximately 15 million people use heroin or other injectable drugs. Marijuana is smoked by more than a billion people. And alcohol is the drug of choice for over 240 million people. In general, illegal drugs are consumed internationally by over 208 million people.

And, there are other forms of addiction as well – gambling, sex addiction, Internet addiction, eating disorders and more. Sometimes these addictions rear their ugly heads as early as a child’s preteen years. What leads to this kind of behaviour? Are they just experimenting, are they curious, or is it peer pressure? Or could it be something that runs much deeper?

A Valid Reason for Addiction?

Trauma induced addiction is real. Out of all the people who have survived traumatic experiences such as attempted murder, rape, car accidents, etc., 25% or of them are likely to have problems with substance addiction. And substance disorders affect 40% of PTSD sufferers.

Trauma is hard enough for adults to survive. Rates of post trauma addiction in adults is high, but it is even worse for children who have suffered trauma. They may wait until adulthood to develop a substance abuse problem – they may develop a problem with substances or behavioural issues while still in childhood after trauma. It’s all depends on at what point in time coping with their emotions and the result of the trauma becomes seemingly unbearable.

What Is Trauma?

You may have had a traumatic occurrence, or suffered trauma, if you have experienced any of the following:

  • Witnessed a violent or tragic act
  • Experienced intense pain
  • Have feared for your safety

Different people have different levels of resiliency. Therefore, how people react to dramatic events varies. People of all ages have traumatic experiences. As an adult, an individual is more likely to fight through the effects of trauma than as a child.

Some traumas are ongoing or repeated i.e., military combat or child abuse. Other traumatic events can consist of battling life-threatening conditions, natural disasters, growing up in homes that were unstable, domestic violence, sexual assault, street violence, repeated bullying, and car accidents.

What Is PTSD?

It is likely that you already know that PTSD stands for posttraumatic stress disorder. But what does this involve? What qualifies as PTSD? This disorder is a mental illness of a serious nature. It is characterized by nervous system arousal and avoidance after witnessing or experiencing a dramatic event. In the medical world, PTSD has certain criteria which can include the specification of qualifying traumatic events or experiences, symptom clusters (four sets) and subtypes (two).

The Human Brain and Trauma

While still in the stages of development, humans have relatively adaptable brains. As brains mature, they grow at a rapid rate, learn to absorb fresh information, and change to deal with environments. But this plasticity in children, when trauma occurs, is actually a detriment.

Trauma influences these young, ready-to-absorb brains to adapt to negative environments, be inhibited by fear, and adapt to harmful behaviour just as they would to a more positive situation. Negativity becomes the norm.

The Brain Changes Physically

Medical/scientific studies have shown that physical changes take place in the brain in children who have experienced trauma. A part of the brain that affects processing and emotional regulation changes in size in some traumatised children. Memory and learning can also be affected. The frequency of inner brain connections, the brain’s shape, and its size can all be influenced as a result of long-term abuse or stress in a child.

So, what do these physical changes result in? Kids who have suffered childhood trauma are more likely to suffer depression and anxiety. There also is a highly increased risk of developing substance abuse. Yet another study showed that when, before the age of 13, children were exposed to trauma, over 50% of them were affected by alcohol or drug addiction, depression, or some other mental disorder.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)

The availability of so many studies further shows that addiction as a response to childhood trauma is not only real problem, but it is an issue that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. An ACE shows the correlation between substance abuse and trauma (or adverse childhood experiences).

Using drugs, drinking in excess, smoking, and overeating are all unhealthy behaviours due to a negatively impacted brain as a result of trauma. A person is more likely to self-medicate, use alcohol and drugs, or have physical and mental health problems when they have suffered more adverse traumatic experiences.

The chances of a child growing up to be an addict are increased by some of the following adverse conditions:

  • Losing a parent to divorce or death
  • Domestic violence toward self or family members
  • Neglect
  • Parental incarceration
  • Mentally ill parents
  • Addicted parents
  • Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
What Is an ACE Score?

The ACE score referred to above is basically a tally of the different kinds of neglect, abuse, and other signs of an adverse childhood. The score is higher the rougher the childhood. Addiction and health problems are far more likely to occur in individuals with higher ACE scores.

An ACE questionnaire helps professionals determine the score of someone that may have suffered an adverse childhood. The questions deal with experiences, people, and conditions the person feels they grew up in and around. Moreover, it is a detailed examination of a person’s history and background, based on their conception.

Adapting to Trauma

The normal growth of a child is interrupted when they are exposed to trauma because they have no choice but to adapt to their new reality. Young children simply don’t have the resources to process experiences like car accidents, abuse, and loss, and put it into context. They may make themselves feel better and soothe their fears through outside factors, by acting out, or by self-medicating.

As a child, clinging to a parent, carrying a safety blanket, or certain foods may soothe their fears. And as innocent as these “self-medications” are initially, later on (or as an adult) the child may become more rebellious or turn to pain pills, drugs, alcohol, and more.

There can be no doubt that there is a distinct connection between childhood trauma and addiction. The natural need for feeling normal, relief, or comfort, when not met in a child, frequently results in an unhealthy response like substance abuse.

If a child is not encouraged to develop healthy coping mechanisms, or given the opportunity to do so, they will struggle with their negative emotions and stress handling abilities. Imagine surviving trauma only to have to struggle with addiction later in life. It hardly seems fair.

How Do They Feel About Themselves?

This is a big question where childhood trauma and addiction are concerned. It is not uncommon for a child that suffered trauma or abuse to also be a victim of low self-esteem. This alone can be the basis for seeking out “normalisation” or “support” in high stress and social situations. Alcohol and drugs become a social crutch for childhood trauma survivors as a substitute for (or way of) enjoyment.

PTSD in Adults Versus Children

Adults who are driven to addiction as a result of suffering some type of trauma are commonly treated for PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). The cause of their addiction is frequently this condition. Proper treatment for the adult will consist of a therapist/patient discussion, their specific problems being diagnosed, and an individualised, custom-made treatment plan.

On the other hand, when traumatic experiences happen to children, and they go on to become addicts as adults, it gets a little more complicated. As discussed earlier, their brain, in its developmental stages, went through changes as a direct result of PTSD. This has an adverse effect on their ability to lead a “normal” life.

Because of so many addicts having suffered childhood PTSD or childhood trauma, therapy and screening specific to trauma is used in order to differentiate between patients that have one or more diagnoses. A patient having both childhood trauma related PTSD and an addiction is referred to as having a dual diagnosis, or as comorbid.

Dual Diagnoses

Why is it important to discern whether or not a patient has more than one diagnosis? The answer is short and simple – recovery is rarely successful without proper diagnosis. Without recognising the possibility of a dual diagnosis, even though a patient may go through rehab, they will likely end up going through treatment again after they leave. They haven’t learned how to, without their substance of choice, manage life and develop coping skills.

Dual Diagnoses Means a Specialised Therapy Approach

In the case of a patient with more than one diagnosis, before the addiction can be treated, the effects of the trauma and PTSD are treated first. This is the smartest approach to therapy for this given situation. Therapies such as DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy) or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) are often used. They create a focus that first handles physical addiction and other life-threatening behaviours. It may focus on PTSD and other problems that are preventing addiction recovery so that they can be successfully treated.

Once a manageable level has been reached for dealing with those factors, the addiction can be treated. Through this process, the patient can live a substance free life because they have learned new life skills and healthy coping mechanisms.

Those Who Seek Help – And Those Who Don’t

Is everyone that has a substance abuse problem a victim of childhood trauma? Absolutely not. Is every person who suffered childhood trauma going to become an addict? No, again. However, screenings have shown that as many as two thirds of addicts have suffered trauma as a child.

How many children are exposed to childhood trauma? Sadly, 60% of kids will suffer the experience. And it is very likely that it will have a future impact on their coping mechanisms and their development. Anyone that has been exposed to negative and harmful experiences while they were a child has had their development impacted in some way, shape, or form. What happens to a person as a child makes them who they are as an adult.

By no means are we stating that adverse conditions cannot be overcome. But a conscious effort will likely need to be made in order to do so. Possibly extensive therapy.

What Does “Getting Help” Mean?

In order to find assistance and stop feeding an addiction that is a result of childhood trauma or PTSD, the individual must seek out a rehab centre that is capable of treating the root of the addiction – pain and trauma. It’s not enough just to treat the addiction. The right treatment centre must offer stress management, coping mechanism development, skills development, personal care, and therapy, among other things.

Are those therapies related to achieving a clean and sober status? Not directly, but they do help the addict create a more solid foundation upon which they can build a new life. They will use those therapies to stay off of the substance to which they have become addicted. They will no longer need the alcohol, drugs, or adverse behaviours in order to cope with life.

What matters most if a loved one, or you, are suffering from addiction is that you, or they, seek help immediately. Seek out a rehabilitation centre that is capable of providing the necessary therapy to not only figure out what trauma is present, but how to deal with. Your life, or the life of a loved one, could depend on fast, appropriate action.

Help Is Within Your Grasp

The Cabin Addiction Services Group is a leading addiction treatment and behavioural health therapy provider with a collection of outpatient and inpatient centres located throughout the planet. The Cabin Group’s headquarters is in Thailand (Chiang Mai), and they are, both globally and regionally, renowned for being at the forefront of addiction treatment and behavioural health therapy.

Treatment for both process addictions (i.e. food, Internet, sex, gambling, etc.) and substance addictions are provided through world-class treatment techniques. Mental health issues are also dealt with, such as trauma, anxiety, and depression. Only licensed, highly experienced specialists administer treatment at The Cabin Group. If you would like to find out more about getting treatment for an addiction or behavioural health concern, contact The Cabin Today.

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