Childhood Trauma and Addiction
The California neighborhood I grew up in was idyllic for a family. My parents, sister and I lived on a street that had bucolic hiking trails on one end, and a vast park on the other. Our house was lovely, too. But inside existed a much darker and antithetical reality.
My biological dad was quite the charlatan. He was both a drug user and dealer. He was manipulative, deceptive and abusive. Luckily, we weren’t with him for long. In fact, I seem to remember the court proceedings more vividly than the times we called the cops on him. But I do remember it. Fragmented memories of misery. Memories that are spotted and scattered, but real. The consequential effects of my father’s actions have lasted well into my adult years. And the question is, did it play a part in who I became? The parts of me that are good, bad and ugly.
It’s the age-old conversation, really. Nature vs. nurture. Do the inherited traits or life experiences play a larger role in molding who we become? And to go one step further … Is there a connection between the traumas we experience in childhood and addiction forming later in life?
According to an article published by Dual Diagnosis, there is.
Childhood Trauma and Brain Development
The research surrounding addiction is extensive and never ending. And when done from all different perspectives, taking into account all angles, it furthers our understanding. Especially, on how it develops and how susceptible people are to it.
Genetic and biological factors make us more susceptible to addiction. The science is there to prove it. But our environment and all the variables in it, play a part, too. So it makes sense that researchers have studied the role of childhood experiences and how they relate to addiction.
Our brain, like people, grows, matures, and has an innate ability to respond and adapt to its environmental surroundings. It creates, strengthens and sometimes eliminates neural connections, connections in the brain that tells our body what to do. These connections – or synapses — grow, develop, or break when we learn new things, such as walking or speaking. The same thing happens with experiences. Our experiences – both good and bad – affects our brain’s development and physical structure. And this can either be positive or negative. But if it’s the latter, it can impede or alter our brain’s growth.
Meaning, if someone has experienced childhood maltreatment, they could experience frequent and high levels of stress that interfere with brain development. And, according to the Dual Diagnosis article, “continuous stress from experiencing frequent maltreatment initiated physiological stress responses that, over time, caused the structural disruptions that were observed in neurological scans and which are likely making victims of childhood trauma vulnerable to substance abuse disorders.”
Emotional Trauma Linked to Addiction in Adulthood
Research conducted by the Adverse Childhood Experience, studied 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, who had undergone many different stress-inducing experiences during their childhood. They were linked to various forms of substance abuse and impulse control disorders. While childhood abuse is typically associated with childhood trauma, other events and circumstances such as neglect, loss of parent, domestic abuse, and violence have been linked to an elevated vulnerability to addiction.
The study revealed that those who lived during such traumas were more than likely to become dependent on drugs and alcohol. Furthermore, the chances of developing other addictions such as compulsive eating and compulsive sexual behavior, increased as well.
It goes without saying that certain experiences are worse for children than they are for adults. They lack a frame of reference, so it’s difficult to work through traumatic experiences, which make the effects linger.
Furthermore, children lean on their loved ones and guardians for guidance and support. So when their loved ones are the source of pain, “a victim of childhood abuse begins abusing alcohol or drugs as a means of self-medicating, hoping to alleviate the residual effects of being victimized at a young age,” according to Dual Diagnosis.
What We Can Do
Turning to substances is never the solution, but yet so many do. It offers only a temporary band aid to a much deeper wound, deepening the damage that’s already there.
But knowing about the trauma is the first step toward helping someone with their addiction. Being aware of when a person has experienced trauma during their childhood could flag them as high risk and allow the individual to take preventative measures. Treatments can be customized with this knowledge in mind, so treatment itself is more effective. Offering support groups or counseling to victims of childhood trauma are also ways of providing ways of making peace with their pasts.
If anyone finds themselves physically dependent on alcohol, drugs or harmful behaviors, they should find a treatment solution immediately.