The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Substance Use Disorder

Childhood Trauma & Addiction

Monday, July 20, 2020 | By Cooper Samp

It’s safe to say there’s an unique connection between childhood traumatization and Substance Use Disorder (SUD). As science and research continue to make advances in the behavioral health and substance abuse areas, many continue to try to find answers for addiction. Addiction is complex and stigmatized in our culture as being weak or not able to have the desire to improve. However, for those who have experienced childhood trauma; these distinct events can follow people to the adult years for the long-term, developing maladaptive patterns, psychological health and drug abuse problems.

While rates of addiction are high for adult survivors of trauma and/or PTSD, these numbers can be even greater for adolescents. Where psychological and psychological development are essential to the road of adulthood, these aspects can be significantly impacted by traumatization– ultimately establishing unhealthy relationships with substances. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), more than one third of adolescents that report abuse or neglect will have a substance use disorder before they reach their 18th birthday.

To get a full understanding of the correlation among youth trauma and drug abuse, we need to look at all causes and reactions of trauma, addiction, and the brain impacted by these.

Causes of Childhood Trauma

Trauma can most commonly be defined as a person experiencing a disturbing or deeply stressful event that interferes with the individual’s capability to cope, reduces their sense of self, and ability to experience a full series of feelings. According to a survey performed by the World Health Organization, a 3rd of the 125,000 individuals surveyed in 26 various nations noted that they have experienced some form of traumatization. Youth trauma can be more properly described when an adolescent’s safety feels threatened by an event they’re either associated with or witness. A variety of circumstances or where this can occur can include however not be limited to:

  • Neglect
  • Complex trauma
  • Natural disasters
  • Deadly illness
  • Violence
  • Bullying
  • Physical, sexual, or mental abuse
  • Separation from a parent
  • War experiences
  • Drug use disorder in the family
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Loss of a family member

These type of terrible experiences can develop strong responses after the event, producing life-long patterns if not addressed. Even if an adult-figure tries to keep an adolescent safe, these events can still happen. If a child does happen to feel unsafe, the child can feel defenseless, terror, and extreme amounts of fear for years to come. The adolescents who are unsafe or lack protection can likewise become overwhelmed by the extreme tension of emotional and physical responses that follow the terrible event. These kinds of psychological, physical, and mental reactions are commonly referred to as post-traumatic symptoms. Symptoms can vary from person to person, and frequently are more subjective to the response instead of the trigger.

The Effect of Childhood Trauma on the Brain

Given that the brain is not fully developed up until the age of 25, the impact of childhood traumatization can significantly change an adolescent’s growth and development. While brains are adaptable, traumatization triggers physical modifications to a child’s brain. The most visible changes occur to the Hippocampus which help control chemicals such as cortisol– the body’s primary stress hormonal agent. This hormone deals with different parts of the body to determine mood, motivation, and fear. Cortisol is likewise known as the “fight or flight” hormone because it can alter or shut down survival mechanisms that get in the way of functioning.

In addition to the Hippocampus, the cingulum-hippocampus projection (CGH-R) is severely altered. This part of the brain helps emotional moderation and processing information. While not only these 2 components of the brain are changed, there are more than three other areas of the brain that are physically altered. Stress and abuse can alter the shape and connections within the brain, and the prefrontal cortex, which helps determine behavior, cognition, and psychological regulation can likewise be affected by trauma. These modifications in the brain generally take place quickly and frequently affect an impacted adolescent for the rest of their life, no matter if interventions have been executed.

Negative childhood experiences can set our brains to constantly feel danger and fear. This can be credited to the functioning of the amygdala in the brain, typically more sensitive to responses and minor triggers. In time, fear reactions are triggered by less threatening scenarios than that of an individual who hasn’t experienced trauma. In the seen image listed below, we can see the differences in a regular child’s brain vs a 7-year-old’s brain who has experienced Complex Traumatization

It makes sense that an individual who has experienced youth traumatization requires a source of comfort from these heightened states of fear due to these transformed brain pathways and neuroreceptors being more sensitive to stressful scenarios. Temporarily found in alcohol and drug addiction or process addiction including eating disorders, gambling or sexual addiction, the euphoria these habits produce includes rises of chemicals and other neurotransmitters in various areas of the brain’s reward circuit.

Just as changes in the brain take place due to traumatization, modifications in the brain likewise occur due to drug abuse. The individual who has actually been traumatized can have an insatiable craving for relief or satisfaction and more easily turn to dangerous habits than those who have not experienced trauma. Drugs, alcohol, and other high risk habits can produce large rises of dopamine, strengthening the need for repeated use of the habits. Integrated with modifications in the brain from trauma, the need for bigger surges of dopamine teaches the brain to look for drugs instead of much healthier coping systems– eventually leading to addiction. This fast relief can additionally leave the individual susceptible, developing greater risks for more traumatization.

The Manifestation of Childhood Trauma.

Typically, traumatization manifests itself in adolescents in a number of methods physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Trauma’s effect physically can produce larger quantities of adrenaline and cortisol than the body normally develops, activating processes of fight, freeze, or flight. Overtime, these responses can become re-stimulated in scenarios that might have re-activated memories or associations with the terrible event however are not necessarily lethal.

Psychological reactions of trauma can be attributed to a variety of symptoms that can consist of:

  • Exhaustion
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Numbness
  • Dissociation
  • Confusion
  • Agitation

While these are some of the most common symptoms, numerous other signs can be seen in survivors of a trauma, nevertheless are not needed to be affected by trauma.

Mental Effects of Childhood Trauma in Adulthood

As adolescents, the battle to keep these memories and reactions at bay can be tiring. Victims of trauma can thus feel susceptible. To understand what happened, individuals typically establish brand-new belief systems and internal maps to cope. Taking these psychological wounds into their adult years, people can produce unfavorable belief systems or understandings of a false identity in order to protect themselves and feel accepted and safe. It’s typical for individuals who have actually experienced youth traumatization to walk and bury sensations in their world with unmet needs. Most fear if they reveal their true selves, they’ll be deserted, rejected, and unloved. These unmet needs can also lead to drug abuse.

Another mental pattern childhood trauma can carry into adult years is unfavorable self-talk. Victimized as children, grownups can keep themselves in a victim mentality driving the loop of disempowerment and making an individual think they have no control over their lives. As adolescents, a person may not have control of their environment or situation, nevertheless, individuals don’t have to remain victims for the rest of their lives. It can be a hard pattern to break, but not impossible with therapy and counseling.

In addition, if a child has grown up in a home where there is an unhealthy expression of anger, the child may begin to believe that showing anger isn’t appropriate. If the traumatic incident a specific experience pertained to violence or anger, the child might start to suppress anger and think it to be a violent emotion. Carrying into the adult years, individuals may reduce sensations, and be unable to express anger. In this situation it’s essential to keep in mind that anger is a typical feeling that we all experience. For those that have experienced this kind of trauma may carry anger with them but lack the capacity to reveal it straightforwardly, eventually revealing it through passive-aggressiveness.

If the kind of trauma somebody experienced as a child was neglect or abandonment, one may have taken up coping skills such as burying their anger, fear, and disappointments in order to not be ignored once again. Though not outwardly acknowledging this, all of the previously discussed coping mechanisms are learnt gradually over time and can lead to a quicker path to drug abuse to make up for these unmet needs and unspoken feelings.

Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment

It’s clear to note that youth traumatization and drug abuse ought to be dealt with all at once as a co-occurring issue in an addiction treatment and trauma-informed care setting. Trauma informed addiction treatment is a definitive technique on the basis of how traumatization affects the brain and uses this information to determine medical practices and addresses signs of trauma. These approaches are not always formulated to resolve and process the real occasion, but the symptoms that are associated with it.

While there are a number approaches to trauma-informed addiction treatment, there are 3 bottom lines consisted of in treatment traumatization in this component that include:

  • Deal and identify supports that are traumatization informed.
  • To promote an understanding of symptoms from a strength based approach
  • Reduce the risk of re-traumatizing the patient

Trauma-informed addiction treatment additionally operates on the basis of the autonomic nervous system that responds to trauma. Consisting of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system increases stimulation including a boost in heart rate, while the parasympathetic nerve system relaxes the individual lowering heart rate. While facilities vary, a number of methods in trauma-informed treatment provides services to help in reducing the overstimulated sympathetic nervous system by increasing activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.

These techniques can consist of however not be restricted to the following:

  • Personal therapy
  • Mindfulness, meditation, yoga and relaxation techniques
  • Desensitization treatment
  • Peer Support Groups
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy consisting of emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills
  • Pharmacotherapy

Assisting to deal with these root issues with trauma-informed care can create a much better chance in assisting individuals produce long-lasting sobriety. People who have actually experienced early trauma and use alcohol and drugs as a way to manage internal turmoil connected with these events use it to discover relief and not always since it’s an enjoyable method to navigate life.

Here at Coalition Recovery, we utilize a therapy called Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) to help treat trauma victims. This therapy can be done in just a couple weeks, and therefore is an optimal option compared to something like DBT which would need to take 4-8 months. 

ART utilized a combination of psychotherapies like CBT and EMDR. By utilizing multiple forms of therapy, ART allows individuals to reshape their feelings about someone or a traumatic event and eventually come to peace with it. 

Learn more about Accelerated Resolution Therapy Here

If you or a loved one are fighting with childhood trauma and substance abuse, we’re here to help you live the life you should have. Call Coalition Recovery’s toll-free hotline at (888) 707-2873.

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