Abuse or trauma experienced in childhood can have a devastating effect on a child’s psyche. Children have not yet developed the tools needed to cope with emotionally disturbing events, nor do they yet have the benefit of perspective that emerges in adulthood. In addition to the fear a child will experience from a traumatic event, because they are totally dependent on the adults in their life, they may feel utterly powerless to manage the powerful residual emotions.
Significant research has been published on the link between childhood trauma and substance use in adulthood. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is an extensive examination of childhood abuse and neglect that followed 17,000 participants over a 4-year period. The ACE study results revealed the connection between cumulative adverse events in childhood, and subsequent life-threatening or life-diminishing conditions, including substance use, in adulthood.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is defined as an individual’s excessive stress response to a frightening event that is either experienced directly or witnessed. Some examples of trauma include:
- Having a history of childhood abuse or neglect
- Experiencing a sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
- Witnessing or experiencing a violent act, such as physical or sexual assault
- Living through a natural disaster
- Domestic violence
- Family disruption due to divorce or death of a parent
- Being abandoned as a child
- Experiencing a serious accident
- Being diagnosed with a serious or chronic illness
- Repeated bullying or harassment
- Experiencing significant combat stress
When someone experiences a traumatic event, the brain produces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, a physiological event commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The jolt of the fear-inducing event usually resolves steadily over the following days or weeks as the individual processes and heals from the trauma. For some, however, the experience may not resolve, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder.
The effects of trauma can be disruptive to emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning. For a child, who has not yet developed the coping skills or emotional resilience needed to process trauma, it can leave lasting scars.
Childhood Trauma Symptoms in Adults
Experiencing abuse or a trauma during the developmental years can leave a deep imprint. The effects of traumatic experiences in childhood can penetrate deeply into the very fiber of a person’s being, and then later be expressed as mental health issues in adulthood, such as:
- Very low self-esteem or lacking in self-confidence
- Avoidance behaviors
- Mental health disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Interpersonal problems
- Eating disorders
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Unsafe sexual practices
How Substance Use May Be a Coping Mechanism
Whether an individual experienced a traumatic event in childhood or in adulthood, there is an increased likelihood that substance use may result, especially if there were multiple traumas. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about two-thirds of those in treatment for a substance use disorder have reported a history of childhood abuse.
Substance use is a common response to the symptoms of anxiety or depression that emerge as a result of the embedded emotional wounds. The use of a substance as a means of self-medication allows the hurting individual to temporarily escape their pain. Unfortunately, too often the repeated use of a substance can develop into a substance use disorder, only adding an additional layer of suffering.
For those who have developed a substance use disorder in response to deep-seated childhood trauma, there is hope. Through a comprehensive approach that integrates behavioral therapies, exposure therapy, and addiction recovery strategies, it is possible to overcome past traumatic events and live a fulfilling life in recovery.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.