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 513-757-5000 for immediate assistance.

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