The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Adult Addiction

When we talk about addiction, we usually think about drugs and alcohol. While these substances may be the most common forms of addiction, substance abuse is not the only thing that can be considered an addiction. Addiction can take hold of any part of our lives, from our connections with others to the foods we eat. An addiction can even extend to our thoughts and our behaviors, turning us into victims of our own bad habits. That being said, what causes someone to develop an addiction? From genetics to trauma, there are many factors that can lead to the development of an addiction. One thing that has been linked to drug addiction is a traumatic childhood experience. This is why today we will discuss the connection between childhood trauma and adult addiction: how a rehab center in PA can help you recover.

Explaining Childhood Trauma

A “child traumatic incident” is one that causes extreme fear, danger, violence, or the threat of death in a youngster (0-18 years of age). That being said, trauma can occur indirectly as well. If a young person witnesses someone else going through a traumatic experience it can leave an impact on them as well. Children in traumatic situations often feel extremely overwhelmed, distressed, and/or powerless. Any person, at any age, is susceptible to encountering such occurrences, albeit not all of them will have a traumatic effect. It’s important to remember that not all very stressful or potentially fatal events qualify as trauma. Genetics also plays a role in this, because different children may not have the same reaction to a “traumatic event.” This is what makes the whole topic of the connection between childhood trauma and adult addiction extremely nuanced.

A mother clutches a traumatized child.
There are many connections between childhood trauma and adult addiction.

So, What Exactly Are Traumatic Events?

Traumatic events are those that are particularly frightening, harmful, or violent. When we experience or witness an incident that poses an imminent danger to our physical safety or the safety of someone we care about, and that threat is followed by actual physical harm, we have experienced trauma (NCTSN Parents and Caregivers Website). Experiencing this might make you feel sad, angry, or scared. There are instances when individuals feel this way, either because of what they’ve been through or because they realize they can’t do anything to prevent the bad thing from occurring. A child’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being may all undergo changes as a result of their reaction to a traumatic incident

What Experiences Might Be Traumatic?

  • Neglect or abuse of a psychological, sexual, or physical nature
  • Natural disasters
  • Intimate or communal violence
  • When a family member dies suddenly
  • Dependency on Intoxicants (personal or familial)
  • Circumstances that pose an imminent danger to life, such as severe injury or terminal disease
  • Challenges faced by military families (e.g., deployment, parental loss, or injury)

So, to summarize, children may exhibit symptoms of child-traumatic stress after experiencing scenarios in which they feared for their life, felt they would be wounded, saw violence, or experienced the devastating loss of a loved one.

How Often Do Children Encounter Traumatic Events?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is another name a physician may use when discussing traumatic events. Research on the link between traumatic experiences in childhood and negative adult health and social outcomes is underway in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) project. About 65% of children encounter at least one adverse event (ACE) and about 40% of children experience two or more ACEs, according to the study’s findings. This research has also shown that the bigger the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) a child has had, the higher the likelihood that he or she would suffer from physical and mental health issues later in life (e.g. heart and lung disease, alcoholism, risk for intimate partner violence, drug use, poor academic or work performance, depression, suicide).

Child Traumatic Stress: What Is It?

Children with Child Traumatic Stress are individuals who have experienced one or more traumatic experiences and have developed responses to those events that continue to have an impact on their everyday life long after the traumatic events themselves have passed. There is a wide range of responses that can we can attribute to this disorder. This includes:

  • Intense and persistent distress
  • depression or anxiety
  • Sudden and drastic shifts in behavior
  • issues with self-regulation
  • difficulties in socializing or forming attachments
  • A reversal or loss of previously acquired skills
  • problems with attention and academic performance
  • nightmares.
  • In some people, it may even cause physical symptoms like aches and pains.

Who Is Most at Risk for Child Traumatic Stress?

These symptoms are common in children with traumatic stress disorders, especially when they are brought back to the scene of the tragedy. We all have stress reactions, but when a child experiences traumatic stress, these feelings can become chronic. These reactions can often affect the child’s normal functioning and interactions with others. No child, regardless of age, is safe from the psychological repercussions of trauma. Traumatic stress may affect even very young children. However, children’s responses to trauma are individual and contingent on a number of factors, that include age and stage of development. If parents don’t address the issues immediately, the trauma in childhood may have lasting effects on the brain and neurological system. It can also increase the likelihood of unhealthy behavior (e.g., smoking, eating disorders, substance use, and high-risk activities).

Furthermore, studies have shown that children who survive traumatic experiences are at a higher risk of developing chronic diseases (such as diabetes and heart disease). A child’s exposure to trauma may raise their likelihood of needing help from the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, as well as their need for health and mental health services. Moreover, it can make it difficult for the child to integrate into society, which is why some children who don’t get help as youngsters often end up on the streets as adults. Trauma survivors in adulthood may also struggle to find and keep satisfying relationships and stable work.

Negative Experiences and Reminders

After trauma, a child’s life may fall into a series of difficulties and challenges. The place they call home, the people they call roommates, the schools they attend, and even their everyday habits may all change. They may now be coping with the after-effects of an accident or handicap. These children often have to deal with reminders of the traumatic event for a long time after. Aspects of the traumatic event, its context, and its aftereffects are all going to be a part of this reminder. Children may be triggered to remember a traumatic event by seeing a person, object, scenario, date, or emotion that reminds them of the original experience.

Understanding the causes and consequences of the ups and downs in children’s distress is vital. If we have this understanding, it is much easier to treat the child. Reminders of trauma and loss have the potential to echo inside families, among friends, in schools, and throughout communities. This can have a profound impact on the resilience of children, families, and communities. Reducing the impact of flashbacks to the trauma and loss is essential to fostering healthy, long-term adjustment.

What Effect Does Early Life Trauma Have on the Brain?

Knowing how experience shapes the brain is crucial for comprehending the connection between traumatic experiences in early life and later addiction propensity. Especially opioid addiction. Neurobiology and genetics play crucial roles in shaping the human brain, but it also possesses a remarkable property called plasticity that allows it to adjust and adapt to its surroundings. During early life, the brain starts forming neural connections that will ultimately give rise to the brain’s complex network of neurons. The brain creates, strengthens, and sometimes discards these neurons as it develops and changes. The formation, maintenance, and reorganization of synapses (the connections between neurons) in the developing brain are affected by one’s experiences, just as they are by the acquisition of linguistic and motor skills.

A person holding a joint.
Marijuana addiction is the most common addiction among teenagers.

In a nutshell, one’s experiences, both good and bad, have a major impact on how one’s brain develops. It also has an effect on how it ultimately looks physically. While positive life events tend to have a multiplicative effect on brain growth, unpleasant events might have the opposite effect. Certain structural abnormalities in the brain that lead to cognitive, behavioral, and social problems are often the result of traumatic experiences in childhood. Upon evaluating those who had suffered childhood abuse, researchers discovered that maltreatment led to chronic, severe stress that disrupted brain maturation. This means that victims of childhood trauma are likely more prone to drug addiction problems. In most cases, these problems first manifest with marijuana addiction. However, it can quickly spiral into a much more dangerous dependency.

The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Adulthood

Studies have linked early-life trauma to later addiction, with some even suggesting that the traumatic stress itself disrupts brain structure. However, other, there are also simpler explanations out there. Research involving 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients found that exposure to traumatic events (such as domestic violence) in infancy increased the risk of developing impulsivity issues, and in some cases serious heroin addiction. Many people automatically think of child abuse when they hear the term “childhood trauma.” However, the death of a parent, witnessing domestic or other physical violence, and having a family member who suffers from a mental illness are also traumatic experiences that can increase a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

Those who had such experiences as children were more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol or drugs as an adult. Behavioral addictions, including obsessive eating or sexual activity, may also manifest in these people. It’s also important to remember that kids have a much lower trauma tolerance than grownups do. This means that what may seem acceptable to an adult may not be to a child. There are, however, two main reasons why children are particularly vulnerable to the long-term effects of such events. Remember that youngsters have a limited capacity to draw the kinds of inferences about the context that might help them integrate these experiences more successfully. The impacts of trauma are more likely to persist when people lack the context necessary to make sense of their experiences.

The Need for a Support System for Traumatized Children

When things go tough, kids frequently lean on their loved ones for comfort and guidance. However, family assistance is out of the question when a child’s own loved ones are the perpetrators of abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs is a common coping mechanism for those who were abused as children. In most cases, these people are dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout of that trauma. However, it’s also typical for people to imitate the drug misuse patterns of loved ones they saw as children. Furthermore, the proclivity for self-medication is a hereditary trait that traumatized children may inherit.

Issues That Can Come In Adulthood as a Result of Childhood Trauma

1. Problems in Professional Life

Data shows that the enduring impacts of childhood trauma may materialize as professional conflict. Childhood trauma has a direct impact on how victims perceive and process adversity, trust and connect to others. It also affects how they manage responsibilities. This is why they often struggle with developing a professional career. In fact, childhood trauma and adult addiction may have a direct influence on career mobility and quality of life.

2. Problems with Romantic and Social Relationships

Childhood trauma survivors, especially those who have undergone sexual trauma or any other sort of physical or mental abuse, may have substantial intimacy difficulties that make building healthy romantic relationships difficult. Childhood trauma and adult addiction seem to have a direct influence on how we build general and sexual identities, trust people, acquire self-worth, express our confidence, avoid or embrace disastrous relationships, and more.

3. Eating Disorders

Binge eating disorders, bulimia, and anorexia are all psychiatric diseases that often occur because of childhood trauma and adult addiction. According to The New York Center for Eating Disorders, 50% of all patients who appear with eating disorders have been the victims of childhood abuse. For many individuals suffering from eating disorders, trusting food is more secure than trusting others. Food, after all, is the cheapest, most available, legal, and socially acceptable substance that can affect mood. Patients report that even as children they turned to bingeing, purging, or starving as a way to manage unbearable emotions following sexual trauma. The comfort of compulsive overeating, vomiting, laxatives, or self-starvation as well as the numbing effects of the “drug” of food can be a short-term solution to the pain, grief, and rage of abuse and live on as a coping mechanism in adulthood.

The Connection Between Early-Life Stress and Substance Abuse

We now have enough information to investigate why adversity in childhood is so strongly connected to addiction and how it manifests in adulthood. Attachment is crucial to our mental and emotional development as children. As children, we form strong bonds with our parents and rely on them for almost everything. To be attached is to have a deep emotional connection with another person in order to get care from them. Instinctively, endorphins help us bond with others. The brain produces endorphins when we are close to someone when we accomplish something for ourselves, or when we help another person. You can most likely trace back your whole network of friendships and acquaintances to this branch of social science. The feeling of belonging to a community is uplifting. The endorphins in your brain make you want to pursue the connection.

What Happens to Attachment When a Child Suffers Trauma?

You can only form close relationships with a select few adults while you’re young. Your parents, siblings, and other close family members and friends. Building this bond at a young age is essential for the brain’s endorphin systems to mature. These endorphin systems may be stunted by stress and trauma. If a connection is broken the release of endorphins can be compromised. Suppose you were a child and suddenly one of your parents started treating you harshly. This bond alters the endorphin response in a fundamental way. In this situation, your brain is going to secret the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine. Childhood trauma and adult addiction alter our psychological reaction to connection. It changes how we see the world around us and, more importantly, how we see ourselves. This often leads children in their teens to start experimenting with sedatives and marijuana.

Pills and tablets strewn across the table.
Sedative addiction is one of the most common addictions caused by childhood trauma.

Perception and Early Life Trauma

Childhood trauma can negatively impact an Individuals’ worldview and sense of self. Mistrust in oneself is a direct effect of traumatic experiences, such as those that come as a result of abuse and neglect. Most people who have experienced severe childhood trauma don’t believe in themselves. As a result, they may develop a hostile outlook on the world. Someone who has experienced childhood trauma and adult addiction may start to suspect that even the safest and most familiar environments are actually dangerous. It’s natural for people who’ve had traumatic events as children to want to get away from their unpleasant thoughts.

The Different Types of Addiction an Adult Can Fall Into

As we’ve mentioned in the beginning, there are many different types of addiction. Drugs and alcohol are not the only substances that can cause addiction. In fact, addiction can develop in response to any behavior that provides short-term satisfaction, but has long-term negative consequences, and is difficult to abstain from. The two most frequent kinds of addiction are to alcohol and drugs, although there are other addictions such as:

  • Gambling
  • Work
  • Exercise
  • Food
  • Sex
  • Self-harm

There is a seemingly endless number of ways to get away from ourselves and our surroundings. Addiction develops when we repeatedly seek solace in any of these behaviors despite our awareness of the harm they can cause.

Running Away From the Real World

We discussed how traumatic events may take control of our limbic system. Because of this, our environment is a common source of stress. When we have a negative opinion of ourselves, it’s hard to be alone with ourselves and reflect. By partaking in addictive habits, we temporarily disconnect from reality. Engaging in the action causes the production of endorphins, and the brain’s reward system comes to identify it with a positive emotional state.

It’s not easy to admit you could have a problem with addiction. It’s possible that someone who is addicted to fitness would come across as disciplined and concerned with their health; Someone who is a sex addict may seem like someone who is just making the most of their youthful years. The question of whether or not addictive conduct is engaged in for the sole purpose of evading reality is a related but distinct one. Victims of trauma typically struggle to achieve inner peace. They’ve developed a tactic of constant change through their actions.

The Never-Ending Cycle

The connection between childhood trauma and adult addiction makes it very hard to treat people later in life. In most cases, people who are trying to get well end up falling into a vicious cycle. The reason why it’s hard to treat this problem is that many facilities out there are trying to treat the addiction and not the underlying issues behind it. Addictions are a common way for people to deal with the psychological fallout of traumatic experiences. That’s why it’s not enough to simply try to kick the habit without replacing it with something better. Some of the behaviors that autistic person exhibit are very similar to this. An individual with autism may engage in ritualistic actions, such as rocking back and forth or tapping their fingers. This may aid them in dealing with the environment around them and reduce feelings of anxiety.

For someone with autism, the outside world might quickly become intolerable if you demand they cease participating in these activities. Addiction is not the issue in and of itself, but rather the symptom of something far deeper. If we do nothing, the cycle will continue unchecked. A person with an alcohol addiction caused by childhood trauma may quit drinking, but giving up alcohol means giving up the temporary relief it provides. It’s just a matter of time until they relapse into alcoholism or another addiction. Reducing the impact of childhood trauma is crucial before treating adult addiction in those who have experienced it.

Reducing the Long-Term Consequences of Early-Life Trauma

Although the repercussions of childhood trauma might last far into adulthood, we can take steps to lessen their impact. Most individuals have an obvious trauma history that can be traced back to a specific event. In most cases, individuals are able to both recognize the occurrence of the events in question and name the problematic patterns of behavior that have emerged as a consequence. Negative experiences as a child are common. Sixty-one percent of American adults say they had at least one negative incident as a youngster. It is not so much knowing the history as it is comprehending how it might affect us that is important. As a result, it’s critical to understand how to handle this problem. Rehab centers in Pennsylvania can assist recovering addicts by offering rehab centers, professional therapists, aftercare services as well as support groups for those that need them.

A therapist talks to a patient with childhood trauma and adult addiction.
Getting therapy is critical for overcoming childhood trauma and, later, adult addiction.

Professional Help and Therapy

Childhood trauma and adult addiction leave an imprint on the mind that can never be erased. As we’ve already mentioned, this alters our perspectives and perceptions. However, examining current behavior in light of one’s history might provide light on the long-term effects of traumatic events in early life. One of the most efficient and risk-free methods of doing this is via cognitive therapy. A therapist may help people make sense of their thoughts and actions by establishing a connection between them and their prior experiences. Understanding what went down is one thing. People may be able to solve the mystery, though, by recognizing how much it has molded their identity. Knowing how their brain makes associations between events and stimuli is the first (and most important) step in reducing the effects of childhood trauma.

Only after addicts have come to terms with their condition; do they know what the cause of their trauma is, and are on the path of overcoming it, should they undergo rehab. As we’ve talked about earlier, without addressing the underlying issue, rehab will only lead to relapse and the perpetuation of the vicious cycle.

Behavior Modification and Rehabilitative Treatment

Most people who abuse drugs as a result of childhood trauma and adult addiction never deal with the trauma that caused their addiction in the first place. Instead, they frequently end up trapped in a cycle of reliving the trauma over and over. In the context of addiction therapy, behavioral rehab enables patients to engage with a qualified mental health professional to address the trauma-related origins and maintenance aspects of their addictions. Patients can start to recover from trauma, identify and avoid triggers, and learn effective stress management strategies through approaches like group therapy, individual counseling, and supplementary therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and others.

Patients should receive a thorough and individualized aftercare plan that reinforces the lessons they learned in treatment and connects them with local addiction and trauma experts for further care after they have finished their primary program of care. This is the stage where family support comes in as well. There are many excellent rehab centers in Pennsylvania that can assist addicts in recovering, regardless of the cause of their addiction.

Regaining Your Footing

Nobody can hope to overcome trauma and addiction all at once. If you take on too much too soon, you may end up feeling like a failure. As a result, this is more likely to feed back into the cycle of negativity. Instead, take baby steps toward incorporating more good into your life. A significant degree of vitality is sometimes accompanied by intense discomfort. The top performers in any field, whether it be boxing or marathon running, usually have a history of setbacks. The limbic system may be reprogrammed when we learn to redirect its vitality toward beneficial ends. We are beginning to reclaim the initiative. A sober living space may be necessary during this stage of rehab. Understanding that you are improving upon a negative situation quickly puts you back in control.

  • Bottled-up rage
  • Feeling unwelcome
  • Feeling like you’re stuck
  • A failure to value oneself
  • Having to escape
A woman with childhood trauma and adult addiction running during sunset..
Physical activity can help with addiction recovery.

Believe it or not, it’s possible to make use of these unpleasant feelings. For example, exercising is a healthy way to let out pent-up frustration. The desire to disappear or the fear of being ignored might inspire original thinking. The more we put out effort toward productive ends, the more we feel like we’ve accomplished something worthwhile. Charity and other forms of helping activity are examples of altruism that many people find beneficial. This helps us connect emotionally with others who rely on us. It is a wonderful method of reminding oneself of their worth. These are just some of the activities that can help you figure out your next move if you are a recovering addict.

Discovering Your True Passion

When you’re just starting to face your traumatic past and overcome your addiction, having a strong driving force behind you can be a great help. Your mind will want an outlet that provides a temporary reprieve from your own company. So, you need to feed it. Seek out hobbies that may serve as a release while also being less harmful to your health. Art and music therapy are great for this. The point is to develop new habits to compensate for the destructive ones you are kicking. The most challenging mental obstacles may be overcome, though, if a more positive outlet is found. It’s possible that switching your attention from drinking to jogging won’t help you overcome your issue. However, enhanced mental and physical health will make it simpler to tackle other challenging mental tasks that may be ahead of you.


Millions of Americans battle with addiction as a result of having experienced at least one traumatic event as a youngster. However, most of them don’t allow this to define them. They take action and work on their issues in order to live better lives. Hopefully, knowing the connection between childhood trauma and adult addiction: how a rehab center in pa can help you recover, is going to make this easier for you if you are suffering. The time to begin fighting back against trauma-related addiction is now.

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