Today, an estimated 40.3 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. That’s about 19% of all U.S. adults. A further 17 million of us struggle with a co-occurring mental health disorder such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. Unfortunately for many of us, those disorders often have roots in childhood, where exposure to trauma and adverse events increase our vulnerability to mental and even physical illnesses later in life.
In fact, childhood trauma is one of the leading contributors to addiction and many other mental health and behavioral disorders. At the same time, trauma doesn’t cause addiction. Instead, it creates vulnerabilities, so that those children are more likely to grow into adolescents or adults with substance use disorders.
Understanding those impacts and those vulnerabilities can help you to make better decisions when seeking treatment, can help you to understand why two people who went through the same things can turn out completely differently, and may even help you understand your loved one.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study or “ACE” for short was a landmark study that published data in 1995. The study had conducted a physical exam and multiple psychological profiles of over 17,000 patients, profiling their childhood experiences, current physical health, current mental health, and how that changed over time.
The result of the study, which has been verified but numerous follow-up studies, was that “adverse childhood experiences” had profound and negative impact on future mental and physical health. Those traumas include:
This is not a comprehensive list, but it does detail how changes in family and home can result in significant impacts for children, even as they move into adults. In fact, according to the study, children exposed to any of these factors before the age of 13 are 50% more likely to develop a disorder such as a substance use disorder as an adult.
Trauma impacts everyone differently. However, when children are exposed to traumatic experiences, it always impacts development. Here, trauma at key stages can change the physical development of the brain, making individuals more prone to risk-taking behaviors, more prone to seeking validation, or more prone to chemical imbalances that might result in disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
Even seemingly light trauma increases stress, resulting in changing levels of oxytocin in the brain. An increased stress response can also result in permanent oxytocin increases, resulting in a person who is chronically more stressed, less able to control anxiety and panic, and more likely to respond with physical stress when things go wrong.
Trauma at any age can increase the risk of developing mental health problems. However, children are more vulnerable than adults. This means that when children experience adverse events, they become significantly more likely to develop a mental health disorder later in their lives. Eventually, that results in higher rates of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder – all of which can significantly impact that person’s life.
In addition, those mental health problems further exacerbate risks of developing a substance use disorder. Today, some 17 million of the 40.2 million Americans with a substance use disorder also have a mental health disorder. This means that almost half of all people with a substance use disorder also have a mental health disorder.
So, trauma is more likely to result in substance use disorder but also in mental health disorders, which also increases the risk of addiction.
Children raised in environments with higher exposure to trauma are more likely to also have a higher rate of exposure to drugs and alcohol. Often, that’s because trauma impacts the whole family. Deaths in the family result in adults who are struggling with mental health and are more likely to lean on drugs or alcohol.
Trauma is also often a result of drinking or drug use, where parents who are intoxicated are more likely to respond with anger, to be involved in accidents, and to make poor decisions. Those children learn poor self-care, poor emotional regulation, and poor mental health habits, which also goes on to increase risks of substance abuse later in life.
In addition, adverse experiences often directly correlate to socio-economic standing. Children raised in financially stable households are less likely to experience trauma and when they do, are more likely to get help for that trauma. Because poor socio-economic standing and poor household financial health also directly correlates to increased drug and alcohol use in the home as parents look for ways to cope and manage stress as well, this also naturally increases exposure to those substances in the home.
Someone who experiences trauma as a child becomes more vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction. However, just because you experience trauma doesn’t mean you will become addicted. In fact, some people who experience significant trauma never go on to have problems with substances of any kind. Why is that?
Vulnerabilities are a series of factors that make an outcome more likely. However, they don’t make or break the decision. Other factors like motivation, personal willpower, exposure to substances, and other things going on in your life at the time will always have an impact. Some people even go on to become extremely resilient, often because of how their brain developed, because of their personal motivations, or because of other factors. So, the fact that you have more vulnerabilities does not mean you’re going to become an addict no matter what, it just means that you’re more vulnerable to addiction following exposure to those substances.
Children who are exposed to trauma are significantly more likely to experience problems with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction later in life. Unfortunately, the reasons behind that are extremely complex and can range from social and economic to epigenetics to physical changes in the brain. Trauma and even events that increase levels of stress for longer than a very short time will result in increased vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse.
If you or a loved one is struggling, there is help. Modern rehab and mental health treatment work with you to help you understand the underlying causes behind addiction, to help you understand how behavior contributes to substance abuse, and to heal the underlying trauma and harm caused by your past. While childhood trauma can increase risks of addiction, therapy and counseling can help you to make changes that allow you to overcome that, so you can live a happy and healthy life without drugs and alcohol. Most importantly, if you’ve experienced trauma in your past, you don’t have to wait until you’re having problems to get help. Therapy can help you to improve your life, your habits, and overcome trauma at any point.
Asana Recovery offers detox, residential, and outpatient addiction treatment services at our center located in Orange County, California. Please contact us today to speak with one of our experienced addiction treatment team if you have any questions about our programs.