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How Childhood Trauma Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Understanding the links between childhood abuse, mental health, and substance addiction is key to improving prevention and treatment.

Escrito por Patrick Bailey

How Childhood Trauma Can Lead to Substance Abuse

01 When children experience traumatic experiences, they are especially at risk of developing substance use disorders (SUDs).

02 Someone who has suffered childhood trauma may attempt to self-medicate or drown out their negative emotions and memories.

03 SUDs are extremely common. As of 2017, 19.7 million American adults battled a substance use disorder, of which 8.5 million had both a SUD and another mental health disorder at the same time.

Trauma that occurs in childhood, if left unresolved, can result in addiction. The harmful effects of repeated experiences of abuse, abandonment, molestation, and chronic neglect can cause a child to turn to substance abuse to numb out the pain. While some children are able to overcome their trauma without help, others need additional support to enable them to overcome their traumatic experiences. 

In the United States, traumatic life experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect, are serious public health problems. According to the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, children who are exposed to traumatic events early on in life are more susceptible to developing schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.

Teens who reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse or assault were three times more likely to report past or current substance abuse than those who did not experience a history of trauma.

Trauma is any stressful event that emotionally overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and creates feelings of helplessness and fear. Shock and denial are typical reactions to a traumatic event. Over time, these reactions may fade, but some people experience life-long effects, such as anger, persistent feelings of sadness, flashbacks, unpredictable emotions, physical symptoms like headaches and nausea, and feelings of hopelessness.

According to the Youth Victimization: Prevalence and Implication report, teens who had reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse or assault were three times more likely to report past or current substance abuse than those who did not experience a history of trauma. Additionally, over 34.4% of boys who have been sexually assaulted experienced substance abuse at some point. For girls, 27.5% of those who were sexually assaulted reported substance abuse or dependence. Whereas only 5.4% of those who were not sexually assaulted reported substance abuse or dependence problems.

25% of adolescents who reported experiencing trauma in the form of being physically assaulted or abused reported engaging in substance abuse at some point during their lifetime—compared to only 6% of adolescents who reported not being physically assaulted or abused engaging in substance abuse. 

Witnessing violence can also result in children engaging in substance abuse. 17% of boys who witnessed violence reported substance abuse or dependence, compared to only 4.4% of boys who did not witness violence. Among girls who witnessed violence, 17.8% reported substance abuse or dependence, compared to only 3.1% of girls who did not witness violence. 

Reasons Why

The Journal of Depression and Anxiety also mentions that having a history of childhood sexual or physical abuse increases a person's risk for developing a substance use disorder. One reason why is because substance use serves as a means to cope with negative emotions that are generated by childhood abuse. Substance use can provide a person with a maladaptive and temporary way to experience comfort and relief from their trauma. Substance use regulates emotions by enhancing positive feelings, even if those positive feelings only occur for a short period of time. 

Trauma and Addiction: Crash Course Psychology

People often compulsively use substances in reaction to stress and other psychological problems.

Stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and crystal methamphetamine, are known to increase the amount of dopamine to a person’s brain. A person who experienced trauma may use stimulant drugs to cope because the rush of euphoric feelings can provide them with relief from the effects of their unresolved trauma and can elevate their mood. 

Depressant drugs, such as barbiturates, benzodiazepines, heroin, and alcohol, reduce arousal and stimulation. The work by slowing the central nervous system down and slowing messages between the brain and the body. These types of substances can make a person feel more relaxed. A person who experienced trauma may use depressant drugs to try to drown out their negative emotions and memories related to their traumatic event.

Substance abuse disorders occur with prolonged drug or alcohol use because a person's brain is altered to adapt to the constant supply of the substance. Without the substance, a person will begin to experience cravings and other withdrawal symptoms. 

Substance abuse reduces a person's ability to concentrate, be productive at work or school, and get adequate sleep.

Unfortunately, the relief a person gets from substance abuse is only temporary. Soon enough the thoughts, feelings, and emotions associated with that traumatic event flood back into a person's mind. The use of substances to reduce symptoms can be extremely harmful. Substance abuse reduces a person's ability to concentrate, be productive at work or school, get adequate sleep, and cope with their traumatic memories and the triggers in their environment. Substance abuse can also increase a person’s chances of experiencing a life-threatening overdose.  

If your child is suffering from a substance abuse disorder, finding high-quality treatment centers can help. Treatment centers are equipped with mental health professionals that are trained to help a person get to the root of their substance use disorders. For children who experienced trauma, mental health counselors are able to help them cope with their unresolved trauma, which will enable them to overcome their addiction.

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