Few people recognize a component that’s been strongly linked with rates of substance abuse/addiction, health problems, suicidal ideation, and even early death. Many people attribute these struggles to a lack of willpower, a lack of motivation, unluckiness, or even worse – a defect in one’s character. However, many of these struggles, and more, can be scientifically linked with a common factor – childhood trauma.
Childhood trauma, meaning traumatic experiences that occur from ages 0-18, has an enormous impact on one’s development, perception of the world and even one’s psychology. In 1995, researchers performed a study exploring the relationship between childhood trauma and health issues experienced later in life. They used a tool called the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Assessment – a 10-question survey, all yes-or-no – to measure the abuse, neglect and overall adverse childhood experiences that participants had lived through. After completing this quick assessment, researchers assessed participants’ broad adult health history.
With this information, scientists measured the significance between participants’ ACE score and their health history. The findings were incredible. For participants who had scored 4/10 or greater, meaning they had experienced 4 or more listed traumas during their childhood, their risk of health issues increased exponentially. Some of these problems include:
- substance abuse
- liver disease
- intimate partner violence
- suicide attempts
- unintended pregnancy
- teen pregnancy, and
- early initiation of smoking and sexual activity.
This study proved and measured the scientific link between childhood trauma and health-related issues through adulthood.
How does childhood trauma relate to substance abuse in adulthood?
Researchers have performed extensive research into the long-term effects of childhood trauma. One important factor to consider is that childhood – especially early childhood – is the most crucial time in a human’s brain development. As children, we are the most vulnerable to outside influences which will contribute to permanently shaping our brain.
Studies show that exposure to traumatic stress in childhood negatively affects neurodevelopment in children, causing changes to the structure and function of many crucial areas in the brain. This, in turn, will often reduce functionality of these regions, leading individuals to experience issues with emotional regulation, memory, aggression, stress responses, sexuality and substance abuse. When the ACE score is higher, it is assumed that the individual experienced more traumatic stress as a child, indicating a higher risk of problems with neurological development, leading to these issues. Higher ACE scores have also been linked to early alcohol abuse, which is also shown to decrease neurological functionality while the brain is still developing and vulnerable. Decreased functionality of some areas of the brain can make coping with stressors, regulating one’s emotions, and controlling impulses even more difficult, sometimes leading to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
Out of all correlations found in the study between ACE scores and problems in adulthood, one of the strongest relationships found was between ACE scores and alcohol abuse. Growing up with an alcoholic is an adverse childhood experience listed in the assessment, and many who report it have also experienced additional related adverse experiences – such as violence, neglect, sexual and emotional abuse, and being a witness of domestic violence in the home – leading to higher ACE scores for these individuals. High ACE scores have been linked with suffering from intimate partner violence in adulthood, marrying an alcoholic in adulthood, and even becoming addicted to alcohol oneself as an adult. This risk, along with the risk of mirroring behaviors and coping mechanisms observed during childhood, goes to show how the cycle of abuse and substance abuse is often sustained and perpetuated within families.
Of course, substance abuse in adulthood is often a result of a lack of effective coping skills for the magnitude of one’s trauma. Many survivors of childhood abuse weren’t given tools as children to effectively cope with their trauma – often, the people who normally supply those skills are the ones inflicting their abuse. If and when these children make it to adulthood, their trauma is often brushed off or ignored, and they’re often faced with the pressure of surviving in adulthood with the abilities and resources available to them. They’re then often pushed into coping with their issues on a daily basis to survive, rather than taking time they may not have, and utilizing resources that might not be accessible to them, in order to truly resolve their trauma. Many times, a lack of resources and coping skills leads survivors to believe that facing and resolving their childhood trauma is too difficult or otherwise impossible – leading them to “escape” instead through substance abuse.
I have a high ACE score. What can I do to prevent substance abuse, or recover from my existing addiction?
First of all, if you’ve experienced a great deal of childhood trauma, that does not mean you will inevitably suffer from addiction. Everyone is different, and this study only revealed that addiction and adverse childhood experiences are correlated – not that they are intrinsically linked.
A great first step to take in recovering from childhood trauma is to seek help from a trained professional. Some therapists specialize in trauma; these individuals are experienced and knowledgeable about trauma recovery and can help guide you through that process. They can also teach you valuable coping skills that can be effective in combating stress and conflict in a healthy way, so you can feel confident in your ability to handle stressful life situations without turning to self-destructive means. Additionally, having a support system, whether that be friends, family, case workers or other trusted professionals, is an important aspect of recovering from trauma. If you feel like you’re in over your head, you can fall on your support system to help meet your needs.
If you grew up in a family with a history of substance abuse and addiction, you can break the cycle. Recognizing the problem is the first step in creating change, and if you’re here, you’ve probably already started the work. The next most important step is to see a professional to work through your trauma and become more aware of the ways you may perpetuate unhealthy learned behaviors. Therapists who do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with clients can help them to work through these ideas and essentially “re-wire” the brain to create alternative pathways to those created by trauma. If you truly want to break the cycle, and you’re willing to invest the work necessary, then you can overcome the cycle of addiction within your family.
If you are currently suffering from addiction, help is out there. There are treatment facilities, such as Liberty Bay, that exist to help you recover and reach your full potential. In a treatment facility, one component of your care should include meeting with a therapist one-on-one for regular sessions that are dedicated to working through underlying causes for your addiction, such as childhood trauma. A trained professional will guide you through the healing process and help you to patch up the untreated wounds that may feed your addiction. At the same time, you should receive treatment in a group setting focused on issues central to addiction itself.
At Liberty Bay Recovery Center, our therapists, Lynn and Ron do great work uncovering and helping to heal wounds that contribute to our residents’ substance abuse issues. By treating underlying causes as well as the addiction, our multi-faceted approach has proven to be effective in helping people reach long-term recovery.