Can Childhood Trauma Cause Drug Addiction?

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There is a strong connection between trauma and addiction in the scientific literature. Childhood trauma and addiction are especially closely interrelated.

Neglect or abuse in early childhood can trigger an array of problems, including alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and eating disorders. Many adults who experienced trauma as children develop mental health conditions like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety, and depression. Others may have difficulties forming and maintaining healthy relationships due to childhood trauma.

What is the relationship between trauma and addictions, then? This guide explores why childhood trauma may increase the risk of addiction developing, even if trauma doesn’t necessarily cause drug addiction or alcoholism. 

Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Childhood trauma does not mean that future complications are inevitable, but those who have suffered from ACES (adverse childhood experiences) have a much higher chance of being affected by mental health issues like addiction in later life.

Many research studies confirm the correlation between addiction and childhood trauma, including the 1998 ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study. An adverse childhood experience is any form of trauma that occurs before the age of 18. Examples include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Loss of a parent
  • Neglect
  • Witnessing domestic violence

Since this seminal study was conducted, there is significant evidence to support the association between ACEs and addiction. Research shows that adults who experienced at least four adverse childhood experiences are three times more likely to abuse alcohol in adulthood.

Most people abuse addictive substances for their short-term psychological effects. Alcohol and drug abuse change the way you feel by producing pleasurable feelings and reducing negative feelings. For those who have stress systems that are dysregulated by childhood trauma, drugs of abuse may calm anxiety and reduce hyperarousal. Opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol, and marijuana all slow and depress the CNS (central nervous system).

Studies suggest that those with a history of trauma may be more susceptible to abusing addictive substances in order to regulate mood and counter elevated stress hormones.

Effects of Childhood Trauma on The Brain

Childhood trauma triggers toxic stress and physically damages the brain. If you experience frequent, powerful, and prolonged, toxic stress, this rewires several parts of your brain, affecting the way they influence your emotions and body.

Exposure to chronic and prolonged trauma as a child can bring about the following long-term effects on the brain:

  • Attachment: Trouble with forming and maintaining relationships, empathy, boundaries, and social isolation.
  • Emotional dysregulation: Difficulty identifying communicating needs and expressing feelings.
  • Physical health: Impaired coordination problems, more medical problems, and increased somatic symptoms.
  • Dissociation: Altered states of consciousness, memory loss, amnesia.
  • Cognitive ability: Problems with learning, focus, language development, processing new information, and planning.
  • Self-concept: Body image issues, guilt, shame, low self-esteem.
  • Behavioral control: Poor impulse control, aggression, oppositional behaviors, disrupted sleep patterns, disordered eating, trauma re-enactment.

Chemical Imbalances

Trauma experienced in childhood can have a significant impact on the development and function of the brain, potentially leading to chemical imbalances.

Chronic stress resulting from childhood trauma can trigger the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can affect the chemical balance in the brain. These hormones can disrupt the functioning of the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotional processing and response, leading to increased anxiety, fear, and aggression.

Additionally, childhood trauma can impact the functioning of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemical messengers play a critical role in regulating mood, emotion, and behavior, and their imbalance can contribute to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Research suggests that early intervention and treatment can help to mitigate the long-term effects of childhood trauma on the brain and promote recovery. Treatment approaches may include therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, such as exercise, meditation, and social support.


Children who have experienced trauma may be at risk of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their emotional pain. Self-medication is the use of drugs or alcohol to alleviate emotional distress or psychological symptoms without a prescription or medical supervision.

Research has shown that children who experience trauma, particularly those who have experienced multiple traumas, are at a higher risk of substance abuse than their peers who have not experienced trauma. This is because trauma can lead to emotional dysregulation and difficulty coping with stress, which may drive them towards self-medication.

Self-medication can be especially harmful in children because their brains are still developing, and drug or alcohol use can interfere with this process. Substance abuse can also exacerbate the symptoms of trauma, making it harder for children to recover from their experiences.

How Are Childhood Trauma and Addiction Related?

Addiction and childhood trauma are often closely related, as those who have experienced trauma are at a higher risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. This is because trauma can lead to emotional dysregulation, difficulty coping with stress, and a desire to numb painful emotions, all of which can drive individuals towards substance abuse as a way to cope with their trauma.

Some ways in which trauma and addiction are related include:

  • Self-medication: As mentioned above, children who have experienced trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and alleviate their emotional pain.
  • Increased sensitivity to drugs: Trauma can make the brain more sensitive to the effects of drugs, making it easier to become addicted.
  • Risky behaviors: People who have experienced trauma may engage in risky behaviors, including substance abuse, as a way to cope with their trauma or to feel a sense of control.
  • Trauma triggers: People who have experienced trauma may be triggered by certain situations or experiences that remind them of their trauma, provoking them to use drugs or alcohol as a way to cope.
  • Co-occurring disorders: Trauma and addiction often co-occur with other mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, which can further complicate treatment.

Childhood Trauma and Addiction Statistics

  • NIH (National Institutes of Health) report that one-third of young adults with a history of neglect or abuse will develop a substance use disorder before the age of 18.
  • 2017 research indicates that 12% of under-18s have at least one parent with a diagnosable alcohol use disorder. Data from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) indicate that one in eight children has at least one parent with a diagnosable substance use disorder (drug addiction).
  • National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that adults who have experienced trauma in childhood are four times more likely subsequently to develop addictions.
  • Research shows that those who experienced ACEs were more likely to develop substance abuse issues as adults. The same data show that between 40% and 60^ of adults engaging with addiction treatment report a history of trauma in childhood.
  • SAMHSA reports that those who experience trauma are more likely to experiment with drugs at an early age and more likely to develop addiction rapidly than those who have not experienced a traumatic event.
  • Data from NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) suggest that adults who reported ACEs were more likely to abuse prescription opioids for nonclinical purposes.
  • A survey carried out by NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) found that 50% of young adults engaged in substance abuse treatment reported a history of physical or sexual abuse and 60% reported a history of neglect.

Get Support for Mental Health and Addiction Disorders at Ohio Recovery Centers

At Ohio Recovery Centers in Cincinnati, we specialize in the dual diagnosis treatment of addictions and mental health conditions. Coordinated treatment allows you to address both conditions simultaneously.

If you have been affected by childhood trauma and drug addiction or alcoholism, you can engage in intensive outpatient treatment at our Ohio rehab. This means you can remain anchored to your everyday commitments without compromising your addiction and trauma recovery.

Treatment programs offer individualized care that combines science-backed and holistic treatments like:

  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Psychotherapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Individual counseling

Build the firmest foundation for ongoing trauma and addiction recovery at Ohio Recovery Centers. Call (877) 679-2132 for immediate assistance.

Table of Contents

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn