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Childhood Trauma and Addiction: How Are They Linked?

Our childhood experiences shape us, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that trauma in the formative years can have a long-lasting impact.

You may be wondering how childhood trauma and addiction are related; are people more prone to developing an addiction after going through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)? Is there a way to prevent past trauma from causing addiction in adulthood?

This article takes a closer look at the trauma and addiction connection. If you or someone you know has experienced childhood trauma, keep reading for useful information that will help you on the road to recovery.

How Childhood Trauma Moulds a Person

Childhood trauma is a powerful influence. A negative experience in your early years may end up dictating the course of your life. There’s a reason why.


Our brains are designed to remember and recognize threats. It is a survival instinct.

Remembering threats allows us to quickly respond to similar situations in the future. Trauma is the result of threats we have experienced in the past. Even if we can’t remember it clearly, our body has a way of using this painful experience to protect us.

When our body experiences trauma, our brain will record the event. When we experience a similar event in the future, our brain will try to recall the memory of the past trauma to decide how to react.

a child playing hopscotch

However, there are times when one can’t recall the traumatic experience. The brain is able to repress episodic memories to protect the individual from stress, but emotional memories may still be profound. This explains why trauma survivors may experience painful emotions without context when they are triggered.

To complicate the problem, stress can also contribute to memory loss, which can further blur specifics of the traumatic event. In many cases, recovering these memories is necessary to help the victim heal.

In other cases, victims experienced false recollections or distorted memories of the adverse event. This can be problematic when a crime has been committed, as it can make identifying the perpetrator difficult. It may even lead investigators to blame and punish the wrong person.


In children, brain development and learning are affected by experiences. Good experiences promote healthy growth, while stressful experiences can impair development. Continued or frequent exposure to stress, such as in cases of abuse, can induce physiological stress responses that could cause neurological and behavioural issues.

These children may learn to adapt to stressful situations by changing their behaviour, which become habit or compulsions that persist into adulthood. These include withholding emotions, overreacting to minor annoyances, avoiding relationships, or having a poor self-image. They may also have a tendency to be self-destructive, hypervigilant, and defensive.

They may also learn to ignore the threats and opportunities for change. This learned helplessness can make them more susceptible to danger or revictimization.


Early brain formation lays the foundation for later neurological development. As a child’s brain focuses on survival mode and shifts away from learning, they may struggle with attention disorders. They may fail to develop adequate language and abstract reasoning skills.

Neglected children usually have less mental stimulation while growing up. The lack of these meaningful experiences can limit their opportunity to explore and learn, which can cause them to perform poorly in academics. In some cases, neglected children missed school entirely.

Overall Health

Apart from physical injury caused by possible violence or accidents, the stress of childhood trauma can cause hormonal and developmental changes. Such physiological issues increase their predisposition to illnesses like heart disease and cancer, regardless of where they are in the socio-economic spectrum.

In some cases, traumatized children engage in high-risk behaviours that can expose them to other illnesses and injuries. When combined with compulsions, this can have a serious impact on their health and well-being.

a teenager sitting on a bench alone

How Childhood Trauma Contributes to Adult Addiction

Children who have had adverse childhood experiences are more likely to develop mental disorders like schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder (BPD), depression, and addiction. The severity of the trauma also influences the severity of their mental illness.

Someone with childhood trauma may be triggered by a seemingly minor or unrelated event. When they experience physical or emotional pain, they might choose to self-medicate and reach for substances like prescription drugs, alcohol, or nicotine for relief. If they don’t learn healthy coping mechanisms, they might learn to rely on these substances long-term.

Constant reliance on these chemicals can lead to substance use disorders. If they lack trust in people, they may prefer this chemical escape hatch over engaging in healthy relationships.

Conversely, they might consciously or unconsciously develop unhealthy relationships or addictive behaviours in an attempt to numb their pain and regain control of their circumstances.

How to Cut the Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Trauma-Informed Care

Being forced to relive one’s trauma can lead to depression, unnecessary stress, and potentially addiction. Therefore, it is important to consider the possibility that any child receiving care might have undergone some form of trauma in the past. This approach prevents service providers from triggering a victim in an uncontrolled setting and retraumatizing them.

Teachers, doctors, child protection services, and police officers should be aware of the link between childhood trauma and addiction. They should be trained in how to properly reach out to children, especially when there is evidence of trauma or abuse.

Promoting safety, trustworthiness, support, collaboration, empowerment, and responsiveness can help victims heal. At the same time, this helps reduce fatigue among service providers dealing with victims.


Part of healing is addressing the underlying issues that are causing stress to the victim or patient. During therapy, a doctor may implement and combine different treatment strategies to help the patient overcome their trauma. Options include cognitive behavioural therapy, desensitization, and emotional recovery.

Therapy also provides a safer space for the patient to recall and analyse their trauma. During a session, physicians can guide the patient to return to the present when the painful memory becomes too stressful.

With therapy, a patient can learn how to manage unwanted emotions, correct unhealthy adaptive behaviours, and ultimately improve their quality of life.

a group therapy session with teenagers

Choosing a Healthy Environment

If the patient lives in a place where relatives or friends engage in addictive behaviours, they might be influenced to do the same. A child is wired to imitate the behaviour of their elders and peers. Even if the parent or caregiver explicitly forbids the addictive behaviour, the child will pay more attention to the adult’s actions rather than their words.

Given the strong evidence supporting the childhood trauma and addiction connection, a change of environment is a reasonable response. Uprooting the patient from a home or situation that encourages addiction will help reduce their tendency to develop it.

How to Stop Trauma From Feeding an Addiction

Attempting to treat addiction on your own can be dangerous, especially if you are experiencing withdrawal or PTSD symptoms.

Getting professional help is the best way to deal with childhood trauma and addiction.

With proper medical care, you can safely detox and recover. A qualified physician can help you control the side effects of withdrawal while helping you recover from your trauma.

Physicians who are well-versed in trauma-informed therapy, such as our team at Freedom From Addiction, can help you recover safely, prevent future relapse, and conquer the ongoing effects of trauma.

It’s never too late to rebuild your life. Call us now or leave a message so we can help you build a better future for you and your loved ones.


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