The Connection Between Addiction and Childhood Trauma

Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach

Why do so many people who have experienced childhood trauma wind up with an addiction? Can childhood trauma impact your life long after you have reached adulthood? Can unresolved trauma cause emotional and even physical pain? What happens when you drink alcohol every day to numb the pain from so long ago? Is your alcohol or drug use connected to your childhood trauma?

The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Adults

When you experience a traumatic event, your mind goes into “fight or flight” mode. You may experience high blood pressure or an elevated respiration rate, tension and other symptoms. Fight or flight mode is meant to be a temporary state to help you survive in dangerous situations.

Sometimes, however, trauma gets “stuck,” which is called unresolved trauma—experiences that were so overwhelming that your brain could not process them. Your mind will stay in the fight or flight mode. Remaining in fight or flight mode for an extended period of time can cause mental and physical health problems. Most noticeably, trauma causes emotional pain when unresolved.

Particularly for children who experience trauma, when these situations are too overwhelming for them to process, the trauma stays throughout adolescence and into adulthood. If you experienced childhood trauma, you may live feeling as if you are unsafe, or simple experiences may trigger those traumatic memories. You may even develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The serious symptoms of PTSD impact your daily functioning and can cost you your job, friends and family if it is not healed.

What Does Childhood Trauma Consist Of?

Trauma affects everyone differently and comes in different forms. You could personally experience the traumatic event, or it could be something that you witnessed, and the event could still have a similar effect on you. Some forms of childhood trauma include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Neglect
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Bullying
  • Natural disasters
  • Serious accident, surgery or chronic medical issues
  • Domestic violence
  • Community violence, terrorism or war
  • Sex trafficking
  • Loss of home or basic needs
  • Loss of a loved one

Seeking Self-Medication to Heal

When childhood trauma stays with you, the emotional pain and possible PTSD or other symptoms can be difficult to manage. Children especially do not know how to manage pain. As you get older, the trauma can fester, like a wound. When the pain becomes unbearable, you may use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate. Childhood trauma is one of the most common underlying causes of substance abuse.

When Self-Medication Becomes Addiction

What happens when you drink alcohol every day? Using substances on a regular basis or in excessive amounts can cause chronic alcoholism or other addiction. Now, in addition to unresolved childhood trauma and all of the side effects, you have a new medical issue to deal with. This does not make you bad or wrong; it simply means that you now have the opportunity to heal from both your trauma and your addiction.

Healing from Childhood Trauma and Addiction Together

When you have both childhood trauma and chronic alcoholism or some other addiction, you need to approach healing from both simultaneously. Trauma is one of the most common reasons that people become addicted to drugs or alcohol. When you only treat the addiction, the trauma remains, setting you up for more pain and increased chances of relapse.

When you only treat the trauma, the addiction remains, leading to more negative consequences. Consequences from chronic alcoholism or other addiction range from relationship, job or other personal losses, to legal problems such as DUIs and anything from mild to severe health problems or even death. The stakes are too high to only address either the childhood trauma or the substance abuse. You need to treat them both together.

How Can Childhood Trauma and Substance Abuse Be Treated?

When you seek treatment for addiction, therapy is part of the treatment plan. Within therapy, you learn to seek the underlying causes of your addiction. For most people, this involves addressing childhood or other trauma.

There are many different types of therapy or therapeutic modalities. Three of the most successful modalities in treating trauma include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – this form of talk therapy is based on changing your perceptions surrounding your thoughts, emotions and behaviors surrounding trauma.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – another form of talk therapy that utilizes the concepts of mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness to heal from trauma.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – this evidence-based therapeutic modality is commonly used for treating acute trauma and PTSD. There is very little talk in EMDR; rather, it uses physiological methods such as tapping or eye movement, enabling the brain to reprocess the trauma until you feel safe again.

Despite the strong connection between childhood trauma and addiction, when you address them simultaneously, you can find healing and freedom from both.

Childhood trauma is one of the most common causes of chronic alcoholism or other substance addiction. DiscoveryMD offers individual and group counseling to help you heal from both trauma and addiction. Contact us today to begin your treatment program for addiction.

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