The connection between addiction and conditions such as stress or mental illness is one that is well documented. These afflictions can literally alter the brain, making individuals more prone to experiencing negative emotions which in turn, results in higher instances of self-medication through drugs and alcohol. Trauma experienced in childhood can have similar effects, rewiring the brain in a way that makes it more perceptible to mood-related disorders (such as depression), violent behavior, drug use, and addiction. In this article, we explore the link between childhood trauma and addiction and why drug abuse is so common in these individuals.
What Is Childhood Trauma?
Childhood trauma refers to dangerous, violent, life-threatening, or scary events that cause extreme fear or distress in children 18 years old or younger (early childhood trauma is considered to be such acts occurring between the ages of 0 to 6). The result is toxic or chronic stress, whose effects of which can have lasting physical, psychological, and social consequences.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, these are the different types of childhood trauma:
- Community violence
- Complex trauma
- Domestic violence
- Early childhood trauma
- Medical Trauma
- Physical abuse
- Refugee/War zone trauma
- Sexual abuse
- Traumatic grief
Additional types of childhood trauma recognized elsewhere include:
- School Violence
However, it’s important to note that an event that might be traumatic for one child, might not have been for another. Trauma is defined by one’s reaction to such events, not simply their occurrence.
Trauma, Stress & The Brain
Stress can be a debilitating condition. The increased levels of cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) impact a number of crucial bodily functions, together which create a dangerous domino effect that significantly increases the likelihood of health complications like a heart attack or stroke. Cortisol also exerts influence on other important hormones and neurotransmitters; the most notable being serotonin and dopamine. Interfering with the brain’s delicate neurochemical levels, stress can vastly affect mood, emotional stability, impulse control, and motivation.
Major stressors can affect how the brain and body respond to stressful events and can make them more easily triggered by situations. Furthermore, Further, the brain’s response to trauma can result in a heightened stress response that sustains the physiological effects longer than usual. Both of these mechanisms deepen this harmful cycle and can quickly lead to chronic stress.
How Stress Affects Children
In children, the consequences of stress can be even more devastating. The toxic stress associated with trauma can alter a child’s brain chemistry and anatomy, and even go so far as to alter gene expression. The earlier that traumatic events occur, the greater the likelihood of the child experiencing developmental delays, health issues, or mental health issues. The frequency of such events sometimes referred to as the ‘trauma load’ can also have a significant lasting impact. While addiction may be one of the most well-known side effects of childhood trauma, chronic health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are common as well.
Furthermore, the nature of the traumatic events can affect how they perceive stressful situations, deal with adversity, their ability to trust or relate to others, socialize and form relationships, and even how they communicate. This behavior can severely impact how they interact with others, causing feelings of isolation or frustration that can hasten their reliance on drug or alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism.
Numerous studies have showcased this correlation between childhood trauma and addiction. One found that nearly 70% of a group of teens undergoing substance abuse treatment had experienced some form of a traumatic event in their childhood. Another found that abused and neglected children were almost twice as likely to engage in illicit drug use compared to their “healthy” peers. Unfortunately, these kinds of results are common. Case after case, researchers find that any exposure to a traumatic event significantly increases the odds of later drug abuse.
Preventing Addiction Starts In Childhood
Childhood is a sensitive stage of life where the brain is still decades away from being fully developed. As such, children are particularly vulnerable to the debilitating effects of stress and the impact of trauma. Recognizing signs of unresolved stress in a child can curb the likelihood of them developing a substance abuse disorder in the future. These symptoms include changes in appetite (eating significantly more or less than usual), bedwetting, sleep issues and nightmares, clinginess, difficulty controlling emotions, aggression, or withdrawal from others. If you are the parent of a child with a substance abuse issue, learn more about Amethyst’s family support program.