Drugs and alcohol are often used as a means of coping with traumatic events. While experiencing trauma does not guarantee you will develop an addiction, it does increase the risk. This is because trauma has a profound impact on how a person thinks and perceives the world around them.
Experiencing trauma at any point in life can lead to the development of addiction, but for children especially, trauma can alter their reality. As their brains and bodies are still developing, they often are not equipped with the communication skills, coping mechanisms, or understanding to process what trauma is and how it affects them. Without prior experience or understanding of context, some events that an adult may view as innocuous can be perceived as traumatic for a child. Because they may be unable to make sense of how the experience has impacted them, feelings of trauma can last for a long time, leaving them to search for ways to escape the feelings associated with it.
There is no limit to what type of childhood trauma is linked to an increased risk for addiction. Both physical and emotional trauma create experiences that can affect the development of substance abuse disorders. Childhood abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, the loss of a parent, witnessing domestic violence, and other traumatic experiences can all be linked to the development of behavioral problems that often evolve into substance abuse disorders later in life.
6 Ways Childhood Trauma Can Lead to Addiction
It is often the case that those who develop an addiction as a result of trying to cope with trauma are not intentionally using substances for a negative purpose. In many cases, substance abuse develops from the intention of finding a way to cope with or silence feelings associated with the experience. Some of the most common reasons for this link include:
- A way of coping with pain: Trauma can leave a person with unresolved pain. In many cases, someone who has experienced childhood trauma may have never had the chance to express what happened or explore the effects it had on them. Without a healthy coping mechanism, drugs and alcohol become a form of self-medication to take away the pain. While it provides temporary relief, it often worsens the impact of trauma overall and exacerbates symptoms.
- An escape from bad memories: Unwanted thoughts and memories can recur with trauma. Sometimes, specific people, locations, scents, or objects can trigger a negative memory associated with the experience. Substances can serve as a way to silence those thoughts because of its ability to impair functioning. Thoughts become suppressed under the influence and it is more difficult to focus, allowing those bad memories to fade away.
- Maintain control: Traumatic experiences leave many people feeling victimized and not in control. Substance abuse, in a way, can feel like a way to take back power. In some cases, it can make a person feel strong or resilient, able to fully express themselves and their own needs in the way that they choose.
- Redefine identity: Experiencing trauma can fundamentally change the way you view yourself, the world, and those around you. It can reshape your beliefs and outlook on life. Trauma can be isolating and leave someone feeling lonely and misunderstood. Substance abuse gives the impression that a person can redefine their identity and choose who they want to be with likeminded individuals.
- Feel better: The euphoria that substance abuse can provide is sometimes all a person is looking for. Drugs and alcohol activate the release of certain chemicals in the brain that make a person feel good. Using drugs or alcohol can provide temporary relief from the pain trauma leaves.
- Develop relationships: Trauma can make it difficult to connect with others and form meaningful relationships. Drugs and alcohol may help a person develop relationships because it reduces anxiety and provides common ground to connect with others on. While this is not a healthy way to develop relationships, many see it as an easier way to bridge the gap.