It’s difficult to say with certainty what causes some individuals to develop a drug or alcohol addiction. Substance use disorders are chronic biologically based illnesses with complex environmental triggers. However, exposure to trauma—especially during the childhood years—is strongly linked to an increased risk of developing an addiction.
Trauma can affect many aspects of a person’s life. Emotional signs of trauma can include denial, anger, sadness, anxiety, and depression. Physical signs of trauma can include a racing heartbeat, stomach aches, chronic pain with no other known cause, lethargy, trouble sleeping, and trouble concentrating.
Trauma can take many forms, encompassing any event seen as deeply distressing or disturbing. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the largest study of the effects of trauma on health and wellbeing. They initially focused on 10 types of trauma known to be particularly serious:
- Emotional abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Physical neglect
- Parental mental illness
- Parental substance dependence
- Incarceration of a parent
- Parental separation or divorce
- Domestic violence
Later, the study was expanded to look at other types of trauma. Some of these additional traumas include:
- Being a victim of bullying
- Having a parent deported
- Being in foster care
- Living in an unsafe neighborhood
- Having unstable housing or experiencing homelessness
- Witnessing violence outside the home
- Being involved in the criminal justice system
- Attending a school with a zero-tolerance discipline policy
The ACEs study evaluated over 17,000 men and women and has inspired many other journal articles evaluating the data. You can learn more by visiting the CDC website.
Understanding the Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction
Experiencing traumatic events is quite common, with 67% of adults experiencing at least one ACE. However, the effects of trauma can be cumulative. The more traumatic experiences a person suffers, the great risk they face of poor outcomes.
Trauma, especially when it occurs during childhood, is strongly linked to the development of substance use disorders. The behavior patterns people learn during their formative years set the stage for how they cope with difficulties as an adult.
Experiencing trauma as a child increases the risk of developing self-destructive coping mechanisms that carry through to adulthood. Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, suggests that drug and alcohol abuse in response to trauma be known as ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking.
Consider these shocking findings from the ACEs study:
- An ACE score of 4 or more raises a person’s adult alcoholism risk by more than 500%.
- An ACE score of 5 or more means a person is 3 times more likely to misuse prescription pain medication.
- An ACE score of 5 or more means that someone has 7-10 times the risk of becoming addicted to illegal drugs.
- A man with an ACE score of 6 is 46 times more likely to become an IV drug user than a man with an ACE score of 0.
The ACEs study also found strong links between trauma and mental health disorders such as depression, which is a known risk factor for drug or alcohol abuse.
There’s Always Hope for a Better Future
The ACEs findings are distressing. However, exposure to trauma doesn’t mean that someone is “doomed” to struggle with a substance use disorder. Some of the factors that are known to mitigate the effects of trauma include:
- Safe housing
- Having parents who understand child development and provide an educational living environment
- Parental employment that provides an income sufficient to meet basic needs
- Creating supportive social networks to rely on in times of need, including connections with adults outside the family who can act as role models and mentors
Experts believe these factors are the key to overcoming trauma because they promote the development of resilience. Someone who is resilient does not dwell on situations that are out of their control. They look at challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow, taking steps to improve their situation whenever possible.
Resiliency is a trait that can be developed over time, according to Mayo Clinic researchers. This is why cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) plays a key role in addiction treatment. CBT, whether incorporated into group or individual therapy sessions, focuses on helping individuals develop the skills they need to cope with difficult situations without turning to drugs or alcohol.
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, a top Pennsylvania drug and alcohol treatment center, we are committed to providing trauma-informed care for men and women who have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder related to childhood trauma. Our programs are personalized to fit individual needs and focus on healing the mind, body, and spirit to provide the best possible foundation for a lasting recovery.