The ongoing accumulation of addiction research offers a more thorough understanding of addiction. However, while we know more now than ever before, we continue to look for answers, particularly when it comes to addiction development and susceptibility. Studies have approached the search for variables that could be responsible for the development of addiction from many different angles. The hope is to find connections or causal relationships between the disease and an individual’s social, experiential or biological circumstances. Since a child’s circumstances and experiences shape his or her physical and psychological development, it follows that researchers would begin looking at the role that childhood experience might play in becoming an addict.
The relationship between childhood trauma and susceptibility to addiction can be best understood when one knows how experience influences the brain’s development. Although none can deny the importance of biology and genetics in the brain’s development, the human brain has the innate ability to respond and adapt to environmental stimulation, which is called plasticity.1 As the brain begins growing and maturing during childhood, it creates, strengthens, and occasionally discards neural connections, which compose a network between neurons that imbue the brain with its many functions. One’s experiences affect brain development in a similar manner as learning to speak or walk, causing certain synapses, or connections between neurons, to develop, grow stronger or break.
In short, the growth of the brain and its eventual physical structure are significantly affected by one’s experiences, both the positive and the negative. And while experience often leads to the brain developing in ways that are beneficial, experience can also be negative, which can impede or otherwise alter the brain’s development. Specifically, the negative experience of childhood maltreatment is believed to be behind certain anomalies in brain structure that result in cognitive, behavioral and social impairments.2 Upon an assessment of individuals who had experienced childhood maltreatment, a study found that being mistreated during childhood caused frequent and extremely high levels of stress that impeded normal brain development. Continuous stress from experiencing frequent maltreatment initiated physiological stress responses that, over time, caused the structural disruptions that were observed in neurological scans and which are likely making victims of childhood trauma vulnerable to substance abuse disorders.3
While a number of studies attribute the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction to disruptions in the brain structure caused by the stress of trauma, there have also been a number of other, simpler explanations proposed. In the Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted with 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, many different stress-inducing experiences during childhood have been linked to various forms of substance abuse and impulse control disorders.4 Many associate childhood trauma with child abuse, but other stress-inducing and traumatic experiences linked to an elevated vulnerability to addiction include neglect, the loss of a parent, witnessing domestic or other physical violence, and having a family member who suffers from a mental illness. Those who had experienced such things during childhood have shown an increased tendency to become dependent on alcohol and drugs. They may also develop behavioral addictions such as compulsive eating and compulsive sexual behavior.
In most cases, experiences that are extremely traumatic for children would be much less traumatic for adults. But there are a couple key reasons why such occurrences have a more significant and lasting effect on children.5 It’s important to remember that children are limited in their ability to make contextual inferences that would likely allow them to process these experiences more effectively. Lacking a frame of reference, it’s difficult to make sense of traumatic experiences, making the effects of trauma more likely to linger. Additionally, children usually rely on their loved ones for support during times of difficulty. But when a child’s loved ones are the source of abuse, neglect, or other trauma during these experiences, family support is not an option. In many cases, a victim of childhood abuse begins abusing alcohol or drugs as a means of self-medicating, hoping to alleviate the residual effects of being victimized at a young age. On the other hand, it’s also common for substance abuse behavior in adulthood to be modeled after a loved one’s substance abuse behavior that had been witnessed during childhood.6 In fact, the tendency to self-medicate can be similarly modeled and passed along.
With about two-thirds of all addicts having previously experienced some type of physical or sexual trauma during childhood, it’s extremely important to understand how childhood trauma causes increased vulnerability to addiction.7 Knowing when an individual has experienced some type of trauma during childhood could mark him or her as being at higher risk for addiction when there might not have been any other indicators, allowing the individual to take preventative measures. Additionally, this knowledge can be used to make addiction treatment more effective for those who have previously experienced trauma during childhood. This can happen by offering support groups for victims of childhood abuse or simply by ensuring that such individuals receive counseling in order to make peace with their pasts.
Although many turn to substance abuse as a solution to the pain of the past, becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs can only harm one’s present and future. There’s no question to which substance abuse is the answer; however, anyone who finds himself or herself physically dependent on alcohol, drugs or harmful behaviors should find an effective treatment solution immediately. Call us today so that we can help you or your loved one begin the journey back to a life of health and happiness.
Written By Dane O’Leary
Integrated Treatment of Substance Abuse & Mental Illness