Childhood Trauma and Addiction: The Connection Explained

Understanding Childhood Trauma

There are several underlying causes of addiction. One of the leading causes of developing addiction later in adult life is childhood trauma. A study of individuals being treated for substance use disorder and PTSD found that 77% of the sample had experienced at least one trauma as a child.

It is without a doubt that childhood traumas are one of the leading causes of addiction later in life. To better understand the effects of trauma and how they lead to addiction, let’s take a closer look at the link between adverse childhood experiences and addiction.

What is Childhood Trauma

Defining trauma objectively is no easy task. What constitutes trauma differs from one individual to the next. Trauma isn’t necessarily a specific experience, but more to do with how the individual perceives and experiences the event.

Trauma is thought to be the result of an event, or multiple events, that are experienced by an individual as being emotionally or physically harmful. These experiences have lasting effects on the individual’s wellbeing.

Some of the most common experiences of childhood trauma include:

How these traumas manifest and how they affect the individual differs from person to person. As adults, we can deal with trauma more effectively, but as children, we lack the frame of reference we use later in life.

This makes it much harder for children to process trauma. As a result, it is more likely to have long-lasting effects. Unprocessed trauma is stored in the subconscious where it can have huge effects on how our lives are shaped as we grow older.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. It is paramount to highlight the effects of childhood trauma and those who are helping those who are coping with childhood trauma.

As a child, you depend on those around you for protection and support. When that fundamental need is met with the polar opposite early on in life it often has irrevocable effects that can last for an individual’s entire life.

How Trauma Affects the Body

You’ve no doubt heard of the ‘fight or flight response.’ It’s the way our bodies are hardwired to deal with stressful situations. If you’re out taking a stroll in the woods and you come across a bear, your body responds to the situation by releasing adrenaline in the body.

As uncomfortable as this surge of adrenaline might feel, it is designed to prepare your body for life or death situations. The increase in heart rate and feeling of dread also comes with the body’s readiness to either run or confront the situation.

The fight or flight response is designed to be used in rare emergencies. When activated regularly, it can harm the body’s physiological systems.

So, imagine if that bear in the woods is a bully at school you have to face every day or an abusive parent who can’t keep their hands off you after they’ve been drinking.

Overexposure to trauma at a young age affects how our limbic system functions. Our limbic system is responsible for how we respond to emotional stimuli as well as how we reinforce behaviors.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

As well as chemical responses throughout the body, childhood trauma has also been shown to have adverse effects on the brain. The limbic system we just mentioned is a set of structures in the center of our brains. It is responsible for our emotional lives as well as all of our higher mental functions.

There are five parts of the limbic system that are known to be directly affected by exposure to trauma. These are the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and nucleus accumbens.

The Amygdala

The amygdala is responsible for detecting threats and activates the appropriate responses to threatening stimuli. It also is responsible for giving meaning to our emotions and how we make associations between experiences and emotions.

Those who have experienced childhood trauma often have heightened sensitivity in the amygdala. It’s also more difficult for the amygdala to be calmed after exposure to potential threats.

As a result, individuals who have experienced childhood trauma will often have a fight or flight response to situations that stir memories of their childhood abuse. This could be anything from associated smells or sounds.

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is the brain’s learning center. It’s responsible for learning new information and how we form memories. It’s also highly susceptible to stimuli including stress.

Studies have shown that the left side of the hippocampus can be 12% smaller in individuals who have suffered childhood abuse compared to those who have not.

This effect on the hippocampus can lead to several difficulties later in life. Firstly, the individual is more likely to experience flashbacks and have trouble recalling memories.

It also affects how we learn new information. This often includes the information that we would learn to challenge our childhood experiences. It might be more difficult to learn that people can be trusted. In some extreme cases of childhood sexual abuse, it can even be difficult to learn that sleep can be safe.

The Thalamus

The thalamus is like a relay station in the brain. Sensory data is sent to the thalamus where it is processed and then the necessary information is sent to the part of the brain associated with the appropriate function.

If you sense a threat, then the thalamus will have alerted subconscious areas of your brain before you become consciously aware of the threat.

The associations that we learn from childhood trauma affect how the thalamus responds to stimuli. This is why victims of childhood trauma can often have immediate reactions to stimuli that they associate with the root of their trauma. This can include smells and sounds.

The Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating several functions of the body.

Bodily functions influenced by the hypothalamus include:

Childhood trauma is likely to increase activity in the hypothalamus. This results in us being stuck in a constant state of stress. As a result, we tend to notice either one of two extremes in several functions.

Victims of childhood abuse might have heightened or diminished sex drives. Their emotional responses might seem extreme or non-existent.

The Nucleus Accumbens

The nucleus accumbens is a key part of the brain’s reward system. The brain’s reward system is responsible for the feelings of pleasure we get when we do something we enjoy such as eat good food or achieve something.

Survivors of childhood trauma will often turn to use substances or behaviors that help them cope with their reality. This is often observed as substance use or self-harm. This kind of behavior hijacks the brain’s reward system.

Even when someone tries to break free from destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, the brain’s reward system might not fire for the new behavior. This can mean that an individual who has experienced trauma still has strong cravings for substances and behaviors even though they know that they are harmful.

The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Now we know just how childhood trauma can affect us later in life, it’s time to explore why adverse childhood experiences are so closely linked to addiction.

As children, one of our fundamental psychological needs is attachment. We attach ourselves to our parents and look to them for almost all of our needs. Attachment is the closeness we experience with another person to be looked after.

Attachment is facilitated by our endorphins. When we are close with someone and they do something for us, or we do something for them, the brain releases endorphins. We feel good.

This is the science behind how all of your social relationships are formed. You feel good when you feel a closeness to other people. Your brain releases endorphins and so you pursue the relationship.

When Childhood Trauma Meets Attachment

As a child, your opportunities for attachment are limited to a small circle of people. Usually your parents, close relatives, and family friends. This attachment at an early age is crucial for the endorphin systems in the brain to continue to develop.

Stress and trauma can interrupt the development of these endorphin systems. If something happens that breaks an attachment or changes its context it will also alter how the endorphin system fires.

Imagine that you’re a young child and suddenly one of your parents starts to behave aggressively with you. The endorphin response to that attachment is completely changed. Instead, your brain releases cortisol and norepinephrine.

Psychologically, childhood trauma affects how we respond to the attachment. It affects how we perceive our relationships with others, and it especially affects our relationship with ourselves.

Childhood Trauma and Perception

The experience of childhood trauma has a detrimental effect on how an individual sees the world and their place in it. Traumas that result from acts such as abuse and neglect create a negative self-image. Deep down, most people who have suffered childhood trauma don’t think that they amount to enough.

They may also see the world around them as a hostile place. Childhood traumas can teach us that the places and situations that we should associate as safe and comforting could be hostile.

This frame of mind is a negative place to live. Hence why individuals who are the victims of childhood trauma will often seek to escape.

Types of Addiction

Addiction doesn’t necessarily need to mean drug misuse. Gabor Maté is a leading expert in the field of addiction. In an interview with Psychotherapy Networker, Dr. Maté says that

“…an addiction manifests in any behavior that a person finds temporary pleasure or relief in and therefore craves, suffers negative consequences from, and has trouble giving up.”

Most commonly we imagine alcohol and drugs when we think about addiction.

Addictions can come in the shape of:

The list of how we can escape the world around and within us is practically endless. If we engage in any of these activities repeatedly, as a source of relief, despite knowing that there are negative consequences, it is considered an addiction.

Escaping the World

Earlier, we mentioned how the experience of trauma can hijack our limbic system. As a result the world around us often elicits stress responses. A damaged view of ourselves also makes it difficult for us to spend time with ourselves.

By engaging in these addiction behaviors we essentially take a step outside of our world for a moment. Participating in the behavior releases endorphins and the reward center of the brain learns to associate the behavior with feeling good.

It can be difficult to acknowledge whether or not you have an addiction. Someone who goes to the gym every day might just seem dedicated and health-conscious. Someone who loves sex might just be living out their younger years to the fullest.

Other than the potential negative consequences of repeatedly engaging in addiction, one other thing to ask is ‘is the behavior done to escape the world?’

People who have suffered trauma will often find it near impossible at being at peace with themselves. Their behaviors essentially become a way of not being still. They try to escape their base essence of being.

The Vicious Cycle

One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with childhood trauma and addiction is the vicious cycle it creates.

The individual is stuck in a place where it is difficult to just be. A lot of rehab centers focus on addiction as the primary problem. Whereas addiction is the individual’s self-prescribed remedy to the main issue.

If you take away the behavior that the individual uses to escape from the consequences of childhood trauma, then you just leave them with more pain. It’s very similar to some of the behaviors people with autism develop.

Someone with autism might engage in repetitive behaviors such as spinning around or fidgeting with their hands. This can help them process the outside world without being overwhelmed.

If you insist that someone with autism stops engaging in these behaviors then their experience of the outside world can soon become unbearable.

It is important to not think of addiction as the problem, but as the result of a more serious problem. Otherwise, we just allow the vicious cycle to continue to play out.

Someone who has an alcohol addiction that is linked to their childhood trauma can stop drinking, but in doing so they lose the respite from their pain. There is only so long before the drinking starts again or another addiction takes place.

To attempt to beat addiction in victims of childhood trauma it is paramount that we first reduce the effects of childhood trauma.

How to Reduce the Effects of Childhood Trauma

The effects of childhood trauma can last a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to reduce the hold it has over our lives.

In most people, it is easy to identify the root of the trauma. Most people can acknowledge the events that occurred, and they can even identify the problem behaviors that have arisen as a result.

Adverse childhood experiences are very common. Sixty-one percent of American adults report having experienced at least one adverse childhood experience. However, it is not so much as knowing the past, but more about understanding how it can affect us.

Seek Professional Help

The effects of childhood trauma are rooted deep in the subconscious. They change how we see and experience things. For most people, this just feels like who they are. They are so used to the sensation of impulses that they feel as natural as taking a breath.

To understand exactly how adverse childhood experiences have affected us, we need to first look at our behaviors while using our past as a reference point.

Therapy is one of the most effective and safest ways to do this. With the guidance of a therapist, it is possible to link our current behaviors and feelings with what happened to us in the past.

Knowing what happened to you is one thing. But when you deeply understand how it shapes who you are, you are beginning to unpick the mystery. Discovering how your brain associates with situations and stimuli based on your experiences is the first (and biggest) step to reducing the effects of childhood trauma.

Begin to Take Back Control

No one should ever expect to wipe out the effects of their trauma along with their addictions overnight. Trying to do too much too soon can quickly lead to feelings of failure. This is more likely to play back into the vicious cycle.

Instead, it is important to slowly start introducing positive things into your life. With pain often comes a great deal of energy. If you ever walk into a boxing club or a marathon runners meeting, you’ll find that the star performers often have a backlog of adverse experiences.

When we start to learn how to channel this energy into something positive we start to rewire our limbic system. We start to regain control. When you know that you are doing something good with something bad, you soon realize that you’re getting back in the driving seat.

Common emotions associated with victims of childhood trauma include:

These negative emotions can be channeled. Feelings of anger can be safely released in exercise. The need to escape or not being heard can be used in creative endeavors. The more we engage in activities that are producing the more self-worth we gain.

People often find that acts of altruism can be helpful, such as charity or caring work. This allows us to form healthy attachments with people who need us. It’s a great way to rediscover the fact that you are valuable.

Find a New Passion

When you’re beginning to face your childhood trauma and tackle your addiction, there is one thing that can be a great help. Your brain will still crave for something that allows you to escape yourself. So give it something.

Try to partake in passions that offer escape, but they’re less detrimental to your wellbeing. Of course, the ultimate goal isn’t to replace one addiction with another. However, finding a more positive release can help you face the more difficult psychological challenges.

Shifting your focus from drinking to running might not solve the underlying problem. The improved state of mind and wellness will make it easier to carry out difficult psychological work though. You’ll be in a much better frame of mind for moving forward.

Taking the First Step

When addiction co-occurs with childhood trauma it can be exceptionally difficult to take the first step to recovery. At our Costa Mesa Rehab & Detox Center our recovery programs offer a holistic approach to your recovery. We offer therapy to help unwrap the effects of childhood trauma as well as help beat addiction.

Our detoxification programs offer several healthy and creative activities as well as nutrition planning to help you on the path to recovery.

If you are looking for a fresh start in life then give us a call today and we can discuss a program tailored specifically for your needs.