Although the causes of addiction are complex and difficult to understand, there is a strong correlation between childhood trauma and the development of substance use disorders. To promote a lasting recovery, the effects of trauma must be considered as part of an individual’s treatment program.
Understanding the Link Between Trauma and Addiction
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a groundbreaking look at how childhood trauma affects a person’s long-term mental health. The study looked at the experiences of over 17,000 individuals and asked if they had experienced any of the following types of trauma:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Living with a family member diagnosed with a mental illness
- Living in a household with a relative who has been incarcerated
- Parental divorce or separation
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Living with a family member with a drug or alcohol addiction
Participants received 1 point for each type of trauma they had experienced, with 67% of adults experiencing at least one trauma. However, higher scores were linked to a range of negative outcomes. For example:
- An ACE score of 4 or more was found to raise alcoholism risk by more than 500%.
- An ACE score of 5 or more was found to lead to 7-10 times the risk of becoming addicted to illegal drugs.
- An ACE Score of 5 or more was linked to 3 times the risk of misusing prescription pain medications.
- Higher scores were linked to dramatic increases in mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD—all of which are considered risk factors for addiction.
When the original ACE study was later expanded to include additional forms of trauma such as racism, homelessness, being placed in foster care, or having a parent deported, the link to trauma and negative health outcomes remained strong. In fact, Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, suggests that we think of as ritualized compulsive comfort seeking that is a normal but problematic response to trauma.
Obviously, the best way to prevent mental health problems is to avoid having individuals experience trauma in the first place. However, some types of trauma simply can’t be prevented.
When trauma is inevitable, protective factors can lessen the effects. These include:
- Supportive social networks of friends, family, and community members
- Safe housing
- Parental education, including a knowledge of child development
- Parental employment in an occupation that provides a wage sufficient for basic needs
- Adults who can act as role models or mentors, including teachers, worship leaders, or coaches
Protective factors in a child’s environment helps promote resilience, which is the ability to adapt to stress and adversity. An individual who is resilient looks at problematic situations as opportunities to learn and grow. If they can take steps to improve their situation, they will do so. However, they won’t dwell on factors that are simply beyond their control.
Resilience can be developed throughout a person’s lifetime. The following tips can help adults improve their ability to be resilient in the face of adversity:
- Strive for a healthy lifestyle that includes sufficient sleep, regular exercise, and a balanced diet.
- Continue to work towards developing strong relationships with family and friends.
- Evaluate past experiences to determine how to best respond to future challenges. Journaling about events is one possible way to gain this sense of perspective.
- Set goals for yourself to provide a sense of clarity and purpose. Both short-term and long-term goals keep you focused on the future, instead of dwelling on the past.
- Be proactive when it comes to dealing with setbacks. Dealing with challenges as they occur is generally easier than waiting until a problem becomes a genuine crisis.
The Value of Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment
When someone with a history of trauma is struggling with a substance-use disorder, it’s vital that both issues be addressed simultaneously. If the effects of trauma created the vulnerability that lead to drug or alcohol abuse, ignoring the underlying issue puts the person at a high risk of relapse.
Trauma-informed addiction treatment recognizes the widespread impact of trauma, integrates current medical research about trauma into a person’s care plan, and seeks to avoid situations that could be retraumatizing as a person works towards recovery. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to identify and change patterns of negative patterns of thinking while boosting the skills that promote residency.
At Waypoint Recovery Center, a top South Carolina drug and alcohol treatment facility, we provide personalized care to men and women struggling with substance abuse. This includes access to trauma-informed individual and group therapy, supported by holistic treatments designed to heal the mind, body, and spirit.