How Trauma in Childhood Can Lead to Addiction in Adulthood

Childhood trauma is a strong predictor of adult substance abuse disorders. Research has found that the more stressful your childhood and the more different types of traumatic experiences you have as a child, the higher your risk of succumbing to addiction as an adult.

Trauma in childhood

Because women are far more likely than men to experience childhood abuse and neglect, seeking out an addiction treatment center exclusively for women that intimately understands the causal link between childhood trauma and adult substance abuse may be imperative for success. Multiple studies have examined this link, and researchers have even pinpointed physiological brain changes that occur as a result of childhood trauma which could raise the risk of addiction in adulthood.

The Trauma-Addiction Link

The experiences we have in childhood often set the tone for our adult lives. Children raised in nurturing, trauma-free environments enter adulthood predisposed to thrive. Children raised in traumatic, stressful and chaotic environments enter adulthood predisposed to anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders.

Of course, children can in general cope with some level of stress. Coping with mild amounts of intermittent stress helps children learn to deal with larger amounts of stress later on. However, the extreme stress of traumatic events, like parental neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, the death of a parent, having a parent in prison, witnessing domestic violence, going through parental divorce or suffering a life-threatening medical condition can cause lasting psychological damage.

A study of adolescents who were in school near the World Trade Center on 9/11 looked at the relationship between the number of trauma-inducing factors the teens experienced and their likelihood of increased substance abuse later on. Researchers looked at factors including knowing someone who was killed in the attacks, fearing for your life or that of a loved one and proximity to the attacks. The study found that adolescents who experienced one trauma-inducing factor were five times more likely to increase their substance abuse, and adolescents with three or more trauma-inducing factors were 19 times more likely to increase their substance abuse following the attacks. The teens who increased their substance abuse demonstrated signs of addiction, like poor school performance and behavior problems.

A larger study, which examined Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, among 17,000 California residents found strong relationships between childhood trauma and addictions of all kinds. In addition to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, these adults also suffered from an increased vulnerability to overeating.

Childhood Trauma Affects Neural Networks

University of Texas researchers, in a study of32 adolescents, found a link between childhood trauma and neural network disruptions that can increase the chance of depression, addiction or both. Nineteen of the 32 teenagers studied had a history of childhood trauma, but did not present with a current mental disorder; the other 13 had no history of childhood trauma or psychiatric disorders and served as the control group. For the purposes of the study, the researchers defined childhood trauma as severe abuse or neglect that occurred for six months or longer, a single traumatic experience like a life-threatening illness, losing a parent before 10 years of age or being a witness to domestic violence.


The researchers followed the teens for 3.5 years, checking up with them every six months. Over the course of the study, five of the teens with a history of childhood trauma and one control developed major depression. Four of the teens with a history of trauma developed a substance abuse disorder, along with one member of the control group; two of the teens with a history of trauma developed both.

The researchers used an imaging technique to look for differences in the in the teenagers’ brain functioning between the time they entered the study and the time when they developed psychiatric disorders. They found neural network connectivity issues in several parts of the traumatized teenagers’ brains. Among the teens vulnerable to depression, more changes were found in the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF), which is involved with behavior planning and language processing. Among those who had developed a substance abuse disorder, more changes were found in the cingulum-hippocampus projection (CGH-R), which is implicated in emotional processing and responding to emotional stress. The researchers interpreted these results to mean that the teens who later developed depression were prone to rumination and negative language, while those who later developed substance abuse disorders struggled to regulate their emotions.

Addiction specialists have long understood that there is a strong link between childhood trauma and adulthood substance abuse disorders. Researchers are now learning more about the physiological nature of that connection. Perhaps by taking steps to protect children from the effects of trauma and stress, we can help more young people grow into addiction-free adults.



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