Childhood Trauma and Addiction -The Intriguing Association

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1 October, 2018

How Childhood Trauma Creates Adult Addicts

Drug and alcohol addiction is exceedingly widespread in the United States, affecting around 22.6 million people. Addiction is usually stigmatized by the society and is often depicted as a dangerous habit of the criminal and weak-minded people. However, despite being stigmatized, addiction is definitely more intricate than how the media usually portrays it and its profound association with trauma, especially childhood trauma is well understood and documented.

Addiction can be an unconscious attempt by the brain to abscond from the pain of trauma’

Prevalence of addiction is already high among the adult survivors of trauma but is far worse among the child survivors. The reason behind it is the brains of children are under development and are adaptable which enables them to change quickly in order to meet the environment, grow rapidly as they mature, and to learn new information. In cases of traumatic events, this same adaptability of the brain becomes dangerous as children may then habituate harmful behaviors and adapt to a negative environment as readily as they adopt a positive one.


The Effect of Trauma on the Brain

Children who have encountered trauma have been shown to develop certain changes in their brains. The development of the brain gets altered and is distorted in abusive and hostile environments. The most well-documented effects are changes in the size of the hippocampus that regulates memory and learning, the cerebellum which controls muscle coordination, the corpus callosum which is responsible for emotional responses, and the prefrontal cortex which controls cognition, behavior, and emotional regulation. Trauma in the childhood can be in various forms, such as sexual, emotional or physical abuse, loss of loved ones, bullying, accidents, family separation, abandonment, natural disaster, etc. All these forms of trauma alter the children’s stress mechanisms and as a consequence of which, they become more sensitive to stress throughout their adult life. Stress for long-term has shown to change the shape, size and the frequency of connections inside the brain because of which such children are more prone to develop depression and anxiety and an increased susceptibility to drug abuse and addiction. In one study, more than half of the children who were exposed to trauma under the age of 13 were affected either by alcohol or drug use disorder or by a psychiatric disorder such as depression. Although this study was a small one, but the impact of trauma on the developing brain of children cannot be denied.


Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

These are traumatic or stressful events occurring in the childhood including domestic violence, parental separation, being a victim of abuse or neglect, living with parents having mental health disorder or substance abuse disorder, incarceration of a family member(s), etc.


Statistical and Causative Link between Trauma and Addiction:

Researchers have been trying to study and demonstrate the link between trauma and addiction in order to understand why so many addicts have a history of traumatic events.

Data from around 17 thousand patients in Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences analysis demonstrated that a child who is exposed to 4 or more traumatic events is up to 46 times more likely to become an injection drug abuser and 5 times more likely to become an alcoholic.

It is not only the young children who experience trauma are prone to develop an addiction later in their lives. In 2003, a national survey of adolescents showed that teens who suffered from sexual or physical abuse were 3 times more likely to report current or past drug abuse than those who did not have any history of trauma. Additionally, in surveys of adolescents who were being treated for drug abuse, more than 70 percent of the participants gave a history of trauma.

Research has also depicted a particularly strong association between drug abuse and trauma in adolescents with PTSD, showing that around 59 percent of the young population with PTSD develop problems related to drug abuse.


Using Substances as a Coping Mechanism:

Most of the sufferers of traumatic events begin abusing alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism that allows them to lie to themselves and to others in an effort to run away from facing the truth. They want to escape painful memories, soothe their pain, and create a world around them that they can tolerate – at least in their minds. Although facing trauma in childhood does not guarantee automatically that the survivor will adtion rehab cenedevelop substance use disorder or addiction, but certainly is a major risk factor for addiction-related behaviors including alcoholism, drug addiction and eating disorders.


The Dangers of Positivity:

Positive thinking is good but too much positivity can get you in trouble. Persistent positive thinking can become pathological if people are not careful. It can take the shape of ‘magical thinking’ where people can lose the ability to realize what is actually going on in their lives and land into full denial of reality. In the setting of trauma, substance use disorder, and addiction, focusing only on the positive can be counterproductive as people are not willing to acknowledge how serious these issues can be and to what extent they can cost them and their families. Awareness of way things are, stressors and their impact on behavior can help in achieving greater happiness.


How to Spot Childhood Trauma

In order to spot childhood trauma, we need to first identify what can be considered as traumatic events for children. These are experiences that cause a child to feel extremely vulnerable, shock or terrify him and may feel like life-threatening (whether perceived or real) to him. We also need to acknowledge that different people respond differently to any traumatic event. Sings of possible trauma that need to be noted include:

  • Notice personality shifts
  • Notice how easily a child becomes upset or irritated
  • Watch for regression
  • Major changes in sleep and eating habits
  • Unreasonable fear, anger, and rage
  • Look for signs of passivity and compliance
  • Notice if the child keeps inquiring if the event will reoccur
  • Observe if the child is scared of certain places
  • Watch for anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • Notice fears that they report


Psychosocial Development in Early Childhood

Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson put forward a model in which he highlighted the following 8 stages of psychosocial development in early childhood and coupled them with their relative ages:

  • 1stStage: Trust vs Mistrust: Learned during infancy
  • 2ndStage: Autonomy vs. Shame: Learned during the age of a toddler
  • 3rdStage: Initiative vs. Guilt: Learned during the age of a young child
  • 4thStage: Industry vs. Inferiority: Learned in the school-going age
  • 5thStage: Identity vs. Role Confusion: Learned during the teenage
  • 6thStage: Intimacy vs. Isolation: Learned during the adult age
  • 7thStage: Generativity vs. Stagnation: Learned during the older adult age
  • 8thStage: Ego Integrity vs. Despair: Learned as an older adult till the end of life

According to this proposal, childhood is the key time when we make many important decisions regarding the nature of reality. Therefore, trauma experienced in childhood can have a tremendous impact on our initial developmental phases and can influence the development of mental health disorders and addictions as well.


How to Work with Childhood Trauma: A Practical Technique

Luckily, there is a solution to this suffering. In collaboration with a compassionate friend or a trained therapist, you can work with trauma by exercising the ‘following the energy back” technique.

This involves working on the very first time when you felt that trauma as all of the subsequent feelings is a result of re-triggering of that particular pain point. When you can heal the first remembered instance of trauma, you get relieved from all the subsequent thoughts and events that occur on the similar line of energy.


Healing from Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Remember that getting angry on your younger self and asking yourself to ‘just forget it’ or ‘get over it’ will not work. Instead, do the following in order to heal from trauma and addiction:

  • Stay in touch with the younger phase of yourself and let it express everything it wants to
  • Get still, quiet, and centered in your loving heart
  • Do re-parenting of your younger frightened part and offer it the compassion it actually requires
  • Do the work without any shame, guilt, or judgement
  • Keep in the mind that this process is not about pushing but praising and motivating
  • Take every step with patience; trust the process and in yourself

As long as you are alive, it is never too late to recover from childhood trauma and addiction. So, never lose the hope.


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