The ongoing accumulation of addiction research offers a more thorough understanding of addiction than ever before. However, while we know more, we continue to look for answers, particularly when it comes to addiction development and susceptibility. Studies have approached the search for variables that could be responsible for the development of addiction from many different angles.
The hope is to find connections or causal relationships between the disease and an individual’s social, experiential, or biological circumstances. Since a person’s circumstances and experiences shape their physical and psychological development, it follows that researchers would begin looking at the role that childhood experiences might play in the development of addiction.
How Does Childhood Trauma Affect the Brain?
The relationship between childhood trauma and susceptibility to addiction can be best understood when one knows how experience influences the brain’s development. Although no one can deny the importance of biology and genetics in the brain’s development, the human brain has the innate ability to respond and adapt to environmental stimulation, a phenomenon called plasticity.
As the brain begins growing and maturing during childhood, it creates, strengthens, and occasionally discards neural connections, which compose a network between neurons that imbue the brain with its many functions. One’s experiences affect brain development in a similar manner as learning to speak or walk, causing certain synapses, or connections between neurons, to develop, grow stronger, or break.
In short, the growth of the brain and its eventual physical structure are significantly affected by one’s experiences, both the positive and the negative. And while experience often leads to the brain developing in ways that are beneficial, experience can also be negative, which can impede or otherwise alter the brain’s development.
Specifically, the negative experience of childhood maltreatment is believed to be behind certain anomalies in brain structure that result in cognitive, behavioural, and social impairments.
Upon assessment of individuals who had experienced childhood trauma, a study found that being mistreated during childhood caused extremely high levels of stress that impeded normal brain development. Continuous stress from experiencing frequent trauma initiated physiological stress responses that, over time, caused the structural disruptions that were observed in neurological scans, and which are likely making victims of childhood traumatic experiences vulnerable to addiction.
How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Adulthood?
While several studies attribute the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction to disruptions in the brain structure caused by the stress of trauma, other, simpler explanations have been proposed. In one study of trauma survivors, many stress-inducing experiences during childhood, such as domestic violence, were linked to various forms of substance abuse and impulse control disorders.
Many people equate childhood trauma with child abuse, but other traumatic experiences linked to an elevated vulnerability to addiction include neglect, the loss of a parent, witnessing domestic or other physical violence, and having a family member who suffers from a mental illness.
Those who experience such things during childhood show an increased tendency to become dependent on alcohol and drugs. They may also develop behavioural addictions such as compulsive eating and compulsive sexual behavior.
In most cases, experiences that are extremely traumatic for children would be less traumatic for adults. There are a couple of key reasons why such occurrences have a more significant and lasting effect on children. It’s important to remember that children are limited in their ability to make contextual inferences that would likely allow them to process these experiences more effectively. Lacking a frame of reference, it’s difficult to make sense of traumatic experiences, making the effects of trauma more likely to linger.
Additionally, children usually rely on their loved ones for support during times of difficulty. But when a child’s loved ones are the source of abuse, neglect, or other trauma during these experiences, family support is not an option. In many cases, a victim of childhood abuse begins misusing alcohol or drugs as a means of self-medicating, hoping to alleviate the residual effects of being victimised at a young age.
On the other hand, it’s also common for addiction in adulthood to be modelled after a loved one’s substance abuse behaviour that had been witnessed during childhood. In fact, the tendency to self-medicate can be similarly modelled and passed along.
How Do We Deal With Childhood Trauma in Adulthood?
With about two-thirds of all addicts having previously experienced some type of physical or sexual traumatic experiences during childhood, it’s extremely important to understand how childhood trauma causes increased vulnerability to addiction. If an individual has experienced trauma during childhood, being aware of a high addiction risk can allow that individual to take preventative measures.
Additionally, this knowledge can be used to make addiction treatment more effective for those who have previously experienced traumatic events during childhood. Although many addiction treatment centres make use of talk therapy and support groups, a treatment method called Heartbeat Trauma Release provides a path to healing for those who don’t want to talk about what happened to them.
Although many turn to substance abuse as a solution to the pain of the past, becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs can only harm one’s present and future. There’s no question to which substance abuse is the answer; however, anyone who becomes physically dependent on alcohol, drugs or harmful behaviours should find an effective treatment solution immediately.
Childhood Trauma and PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that develops in some children who have experienced a shocking, scary, dangerous event or ongoing trauma.
It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm.
Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.
Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma, but some of their symptoms may not be the same as adults. PTSD is sometimes seen in very young children (less than 6 years old). Symptoms can include:
- Wetting the bed after having learned to use the toilet
- Forgetting how to or being unable to talk
- Acting out the scary event during playtime
- Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult
Older children and youth are more likely to show PTSD symptoms similar to those seen in adults. They may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviours. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing the trauma. They may also have thoughts of revenge.
Psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”) involves speaking with a mental health professional to treat a mental illness or addiction. It can occur one-on-one or in a group. Talk therapy treatment usually lasts 30 to 90 days but it can last longer – years, or even decades.
Some types of psychotherapy target the symptoms directly. Others focus on social, family, or job-related problems. In some cases, medication is used in conjunction with the therapy to manage symptoms.
This approach is not for everyone, though. For many people, reliving the bad experiences by talking about them has a retraumatizing effect that can cause a great deal of harm. Conventional psychotherapy approaches trauma symptoms as something to be managed rather than cured: patients are taught how to live with their symptoms.
The One Trauma Approach
At One Trauma, the focus is different. We don’t believe that people should be expected to coexist with trauma injuries for the rest of their lives. Using the Heartbeat Trauma Release (HTR) method, we show our clients how they can permanently release the negative emotions and destructive thoughts that are associated with their trauma.
During follow-up treatment, we use a variety of techniques, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, to help our clients discover their true selves so they can live the lives they deserve. At no point during this process is the client expected to talk about the most vulnerable parts of their lives.
Help is available so don’t hesitate to seek treatment. The sooner you book a treatment session, the sooner you can heal from your childhood trauma. If you are worried about yourself or a loved one, contact us today.