Childhood Trauma and Addiction – Why There’s a Link
Can what happened to you as a child cause you to use drugs or alcohol now? Growing evidence indicates that many people who abuse drugs and alcohol have had some type of traumatic experience in their past. When this is the case, treating the trauma becomes essential to enabling a person to live a life in recovery.
How Does Past Trauma Lead to Drug Use?
There are many types of trauma. Some examples include physical, emotional, sexual, or mental abuse; watching a loved one die; experiencing prolonged illness; or being involved in a natural disaster.
Trauma can happen to both children and adults. When it occurs with children, referred to as childhood trauma, it may leave a more lasting mark because the brain is still developing. A report issued by the Children’s Bureau, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found a direct connection to abuse and neglect in young children and changes in the way their brains developed over time. The changes were significant enough to be picked up on by an MRI.
This happens because of the way the neural connections form during early childhood and development. These connections play a role in the way the brain communicates with the body, impacting the way a person thinks, acts, grows, and speaks.
A person’s experiences, especially during their childhood, impact the brain’s physical structure. Some experiences help the brain develop positively, while others, such as abuse, can impede brain development, creating potential complications later in life.
When trauma occurs, the brain struggles to process what’s happened. If the brain cannot work through those events, it can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories or flashbacks, guilt, depression, and hypervigilance. This trauma doesn’t go away without therapy and support.
Trauma & Stress Lead to Addictive Behaviors
Past trauma affects the way a person learns, interacts with others, and learns to build relationships. Often, trauma leads to a buildup of stress, which can be hard to manage over time and can lead to anxiety and depression.
Most people have no idea how to “move on” from trauma; they believe they will never “get over” what happened to them. This frame of mind can lead to an urge to self-medicate. Drugs and alcohol may help a person to forget or feel better. Addiction develops because of continued use. It may seem far easier to manage addiction than to think about and feel the past trauma reoccurring in daily life.
How Can Childhood Trauma & Addiction Be Treated?
Treating both the trauma and the addiction is necessary to help the person have a full recovery and start feeling more in control of the future.
Treatment for childhood trauma does not mean reliving the trauma itself. It means working with therapists to break the connection between what happened then and how it impacts the present. What many people don’t initially realize is that they don’t have to live with the pain, self-hate, and psychological stress of that past trauma.
Types of trauma therapy can include support groups for other victims of trauma. It may include individual counseling sessions to talk about negative and inaccurate thoughts. Getting drug and alcohol addiction treatment in a location that offers mental health treatment as well is the key to long-term recovery. If a person fails to address the underlying trauma, the chance of relapsing from addiction recovery is very high. Treating both conditions at the same time may yield improvement in quality of life and overall health.
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