Numerous studies indicate that there is a clear correlation between childhood trauma and substance abuse/addiction. Research and circumstances have shown that that various traumas follow individuals into maturity. If neglected and left untreated, they can create long term health issues that cause the affected to self-medicate. This trauma is characterized by a patient’s inability to move past negative experiences without reliving them. Most commonly, the traumatic experiences may include: rape/sexual assault, physical assault, domestic violence, bullying, terminal disease, and parental neglect. Symptoms may include agitation, avoiding things that remind them of the trauma, erratic changes in behavior, fear, and excessive displays of emotion.
This school of thought has forced experts to consider if childhood trauma and resulting behaviors should be considered a public health crisis. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests the answer should be “yes.” Drawing on the experiences of those who participated in the Great Smoky Mountains Study, the JAMA study shows that the effects of childhood trauma persisted and are linked to mental illness and addiction in adulthood.
Great Smoky Mountains Study – 1993 – 2003
This groundbreaking research focused on the relationship between the development of psychiatric disorders and the need for mental health services in rural areas. Researchers followed 1,420 children from rural western North Carolina over 22 years. The subjects were interviewed annually, up to the age of 16, then four times in adulthood. An interesting fact about the study is that about four years in, approximately 25% of the families involved received a significant increase in income. This resulted in kids affected by this having a decrease of behavioral/emotional disorders, and their overall behavior getting better. However, the association between childhood trauma and adult hardships remained clear. Children who experienced trauma were found to be 1.3 times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders as adults than those who did not experience trauma. They were also more prone to experience health problems, participate in risky behavior, and be involved in violent relationships.
Correlation Between Addiction and Trauma
When trauma leads to addiction, individuals live in fear. The main reason? They have never had an adult to count on, and past experience has made it impossible to trust anyone. Trauma victims by and large feel isolated and vulnerable, and this feeling can last a lifetime if they don’t find an advocate and get the treatment and mental help services they so desperately need. The trauma/addiction relationship leads people down an extremely dangerous road. Trauma increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder, and substance abuse increases the likelihood of an individual being retraumatized because of their engagement in high-risk behavior.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), 75% of those in treatment for addiction report a history of abuse. 97% of homeless women with mental illness have reported severe sexual/physical abuse, and 12-34% in treatment suffer from PTSD. These individuals look for comfort in such things as alcohol, drugs, gambling, and unhealthy sexual behavior. Additional studies suggest that a lack of sensitive and caring parenting contributes to children seeking chemical substitutions later in life. Traumatized children become addicted to substances or behaviors to find short-term solace from experiences that they find unbearable, and this has forced the medical community to realize that trauma and addiction need to be treated as co-occurring and interrelated disorders.
Addiction as a Coping Mechanism
Addiction is a brain disease. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), one out of every 12 American adults suffered from some form of mental illness in 2014. Another problem with addiction is that many use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Defined as “compulsions formed over time that serve to help people manage with situations and stress levels,” coping mechanisms vary from individual to individual. There is no question that some turn to addiction to cope, despite the risks and potential consequences. To the traumatized individual, compulsive behaviors are often unconscious and mindless choices. They do not realize how addiction interferes with normal life, and remain unaware that as a coping mechanism, addiction can also be damaging to their family, friends and society.
While someone who has suffered a significant trauma may not realize that addiction and mental health disorders often co-occur, experts know different. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), between 33-50% of those with mental health issues are addicts, and vice-versa. Stress and exposure to trauma are closely linked with drug/alcohol abuse and addiction, and in many cases, drugs and alcohol become a coping mechanism for stress that leads to addiction. It is important to realize, however, that not all coping mechanisms are maladaptive or destructive. Treatment has helped many addicts to manage cravings and handle potential triggers that may arise. There are many healthful alternatives to drugs and alcohol that help those suffering from trauma to cope including exercise, meditation, finding a connection to a higher power, humor, art/creativity, improving communication, and volunteering.
Dr. Gabor Mate’
One of the biggest proponents of the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction is controversial Canadian psychiatrist Gabor Mate’. A well-known addiction specialist, Mate’ spent 12 years working in Vancouver’s “Downtown Eastside,” home to one of the worst drug problems in North America. A 2013 study of the area found that 95.2% of tenants had some form of substance dependence and 74.4% suffered from mental illness.
In his circle, Mate’s work is highly acclaimed, but others suggest that his theories are “reductionist,” and unsupported by significant data. But, based on research, and his experiences working at Downtown Eastside, he is convinced that the root of addictive behaviors can be traced all the way back to an individual’s childhood.
”Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience,” Mate’ wrote in his 2010 bestseller, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. “A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors. It is present in the gambler, the internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden – but it’s there.”
While the medical field has expressed an increased interest around the possibility that lifelong health problems could be the result of negative childhood experiences, critics argue that focusing only on this aspect is far too limiting. Although much research supports this link, other experts like Dr. Stanton Peele argue that it’s important to remember that many factors can fuel addiction, including mental illness, a family history of addiction, and an individual’s use of habit-forming substances.
With respect to defining addiction, Mate’ believes that it is a complex process that involves brain, body, emotions, psychology, and social relationships. He says it can be considered “any behavior where a person craves and finds temporary pleasure or relief in something, but suffers negative consequences as a result, and is unable to give up despite those negative consequences.” But, experts with opposing views like Peele say his views are shortsighted, noting that biochemical changes to the brain have been shown to inevitably lead to substance abuse. Mate’s response? “Peele totally misconstrues my argument. Nobody’s saying that every traumatized person becomes addicted. I’m saying that every addicted person was traumatized. There are other outcomes of trauma including cancer, autoimmune disease, mental illness – addiction is only one of them.”
A final problem that Mate’ has passionate opinions about is the current opioid epidemic, particularly in North America. He says that in addition to the childhood trauma and social and economic issues that play huge roles in leading people to addiction, the lack of education that many physicians have with respect to addressing trauma and treating chronic pain have led to the over prescription of drugs that start individuals on the road to addiction. He also argues the “war on drugs” actually punishes people for having been abused and entrenches addiction more deeply, as studies show that stress is the biggest driver of addictive relapse and behavior. He says a system that marginalizes, ostracizes, and institutionalizes people in facilities with no care and easy access to drugs, only worsens the problem. He also argues that the environmental causes of addiction point to the need to improve child welfare policies (e.g. U.S. welfare laws that force many single women to find low-paying jobs far away from home and their children) and the need for better support for families overall, as most children in North America are now away from their parents from an early age due to economic conditions. He feels that society needs to change policies that disadvantage certain minority groups, causing them more stress and therefore increased risks for addictions.
How do we Overcome Childhood Trauma and Addiction?
While the links between childhood trauma and addiction may be different, help is still available. At GateHouse Treatment we offer treatment for substance use disorders and our clients receive group, and individual therapy where they are able to work through any trauma. We know it is not easy to overcome addiction, but it is possible, and we can help. Contact us today, at 855-448-3588.