Years of research has proven that there is a clear and direct link between childhood trauma and substance abuse disorders. Unfortunately, many of us experience some degree of trauma during our childhoods, whether that be physical, emotional or sexual abuse, witnessing the messy divorce of our parents, or undergoing some other form of trauma during our developmental years. Most of the time these childhood traumas remain untreated and follow us into adulthood, shaping the way we interact with the world around us. When the emotional damage of these past traumas crop up in our adult lives, we might turn to substance use in order to manage uncomfortable feelings. Unresolved trauma can also result in a wide range of mental health issues, and the symptoms of these issues may prompt us to drink excessively or abuse drugs. The National Institutes of Health reported that over one third of adolescents who have experienced neglect or abuse will develop a substance abuse disorder by the time they turn 18 years of age. Another report, originally published by TIME Magazine, found that around 60 percent of all individuals who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would go on to develop a substance abuse disorder. Considering that roughly 8 percent of the American population suffers from PTSD, an incredibly significant number of people will experience substance abuse as a result of unresolved trauma.

What is Childhood Trauma?

“Trauma” is a very generalized word, and each traumatic experience will vary on a person-to-person basis. What constitutes as a traumatic experience for one individual might have no significant impact on another. For example, experiencing the divorce of parents during childhood might traumatize one individual, preventing them from pursuing relationships in adulthood and doing lasting emotional damage. For another individual, experiencing divorce might not be traumatic, and that individual might go on to foster a deep and meaningful romantic relationship later on in life. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”  The APA further suggests, “Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.” Trauma is often characterized by an inability to move past and successfully process painful events. Those experiencing trauma might relive the events over and over or avoid certain situations and circumstances in order to avoid potential re-traumatization. Some of the most common forms of trauma that occur during childhood include parental neglect or abuse, rape or sexual assault, verbal and emotional abuse, bullying, harassment, significant accidents, natural disasters, terminal illness, or the death of a parent.

Symptoms of Trauma

Men and women who experience some degree of childhood trauma will often present a host of related symptoms, including (but not limited to):

  • Mood swings often marked by agitation and irritability.
  • Sudden and unexplainable changes in behavior.
  • An avoidance of things that may remind them of the trauma.
  • Ongoing feelings of fear and discomfort, as well as an inability to relax.
  • A lack of confidence, shyness.
  • Disproportionate emotional displays, like crying when seemingly unprovoked.
  • A reliving of the traumatic event, leading to severe emotional issues.

Those who experience trauma during childhood will generally struggle with a wide range of interpersonal problems during adulthood. Research shows that the effects of childhood trauma often manifest in the workplace, creating many career-related issues. It is difficult for those who are suffering from unresolved trauma to work closely with others in a professional setting, adapt to adversity in the workplace, and focus their attention on the task at hand. Adults with unresolved childhood trauma will also often face significant issues in romantic and social relationships. They may have an extremely difficult time trusting others, which prevents them from getting close to people and fostering deep, meaningful relationships. Forming healthy and functional romantic relationships often proves impossible. Mental health disorders are also likely to develop as a direct result of unresolved traumatic experiences. According to the New York Center for Eating Disorders, 50 percent of all patients treated for serious eating disorders were victims of childhood abuse or assault. Finally, the link between childhood trauma and addiction is undeniable. Chemical dependency takes many forms, but the vast majority of substance abuse disorders can be directly linked to trauma suffered during the formative years.

Addiction and Childhood Trauma

In some cases, children will begin to use chemical substances as a way to cope with the trauma they are enduring in their day-to-day lives. For example, a 15-year-old with an abusive, alcoholic father might turn to alcohol himself as a way of coping with the ongoing abuse. Because this child already has a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, he is more liable to develop a dependency, which will undeniably carry over into adulthood if not adequately and professionally treated. It is difficult for children to successfully process trauma, thus traumatic experiences will often present themselves in self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, self-harm, other risk-taking behaviors, and a general inability to control their emotions. There are also those who turn to drugs and alcohol later on in life in order to cope with painful memories and other symptoms of unresolved trauma. Maybe there is an adult female who experienced sexual assault during her childhood. She avoids men for most of her life, afraid of reliving the trauma and finding it difficult to trust members of the opposite sex no matter how hard she tries. Eventually, she decides she needs to enter the dating scene so that she can try to conduct a “normal” life and ultimately settle down. Spending time with strange men is so anxiety-producing that she begins abusing Xanax in order to calm herself down before dates. Eventually, she falls into a vicious cycle of Xanax addiction. No matter what the case may be, the two very frequently go hand-in-hand, and because of that, the two issues must be treated simultaneously.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

A staggering two-thirds of all people in treatment for substance abuse have experienced some degree of childhood trauma. In order for an individual to benefit from addiction treatment and go on to live a healthy, fulfilling, and substance-free life, he or she must enter into a comprehensive treatment program that specializes in trauma. Individual treatment needs will vary depending on the type of substances abused, the severity of abuse, and the degree of childhood trauma that was sustained. Most individuals who struggle with substance abuse are self-medicating underlying issues. If you were a victim of childhood trauma that was never successfully processed and resolved, and you have been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, there is specialized and effective help available. The first step of every recovery journey is always medical detox. At Chapel Hill Detox, we will conduct a personalized assessment upon admission to our program, which will help us to determine whether you are suffering from unresolved trauma and will require a more comprehensive and specialized level of care. We will help you transfer from medical detox to a trauma-specific treatment center if deemed necessary. For more information on our program of recovery or to learn more about the link between childhood trauma and addiction, please feel free to give us a call today – we look forward to speaking with you soon.

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