Childhood Trauma & Addiction

The link between childhood trauma and addiction

Through exhaustive research, psychologists are slowly discovering the reasons and triggers which cause substance abuse and addiction.

Research tells us that biological and experiential factors trigger addiction. 

Categorised as a chronic psychiatric disease, addiction forces the person to seek recompense in substance abuse.

However, although there is no research to prove it, evidence leads us to reason that addiction can also be caused by relationships: by an individual’s ‘past’ experience.

A study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) found that almost two-thirds of addicts have at some point experienced a form of childhood trauma, whether physical, mental or sexual.

This evidence clearly shows that there is a connection between substance addiction and childhood trauma. That trauma increases an individual’s vulnerability to addiction. Evidence shows us that the higher the level of trauma, the higher the risk factor of addiction in later life.

The link between ACE and addiction

If we wish to understand the link between addiction and childhood trauma, we first need to look at how ‘experiences’ influence brain development.

Essentially, the human brain reacts to biology and genetics; however, it’s also highly adaptable to environmental stimulants; this is known as ‘plasticity’.

The brain can be moulded or shaped by our experiences.

During childhood, our brain grows and matures: creating, strengthening and discarding neural associations. So, although some experts argue that trauma can’t shape the brain, experiences do affect brain development.

Living in fear and dread

If a child lives in fear and dread that experience can eventually lead to a higher risk of addiction in adulthood, and cause problems, such as substance and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

A high number of reports directly correlate child trauma with child abuse, but there are many situations that can cause trauma, such as the death of a parent, neglect, bullying, having a parent or family member with depression, or domestic violence.

Children also need love, support and guidance during difficult periods of their life.

When they don’t receive it, or the parent is the cause of the trauma, these factors can also greatly affect them in later life, because they have lacked parental reference.

As children grow into teenagers and young adults, they may start to self-medicate to get through the pain of childhood trauma.

Equally, if a child has witnessed the substance abuse of a parent for many years, then the child is more susceptible to reproduce the addiction. 

How childhood trauma affects adulthood

childhood trauma and addiction

All of the above situations, which cause high levels of stress will impede normal brain growth, which can lead to mental health issues in later life. Children who have been affected by abuse or trauma – even lesser experiences, can’t cope in the same way we can as adults. 

A negative experience during childhood can shape our psychological and physical development and many adults who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experience turn to substance abuse as a pain killer. 

Survivors of childhood abuse and trauma view themselves in a negative way, believing they are unworthy and more often than not, blaming themselves for the abuse they have suffered.

Yet, as appealing as it might seem, blocking out the past is not the solution. All that happens is that we harm our present and future. 

Obstacles to recovery

One of the biggest obstacles to addiction recovery is letting go of the fear that has eaten us up since childhood.

We don’t want to face up to the trauma we experienced. We fear the memories and facing up to the reality of our past. Instead, choosing to obliterate them through drug or alcohol abuse. 

The other obstacle is change.

Many of us find change stressful, choosing bad habits because they fit. When we behave in a certain way over a sustained period of years, we get used to living within that habitual behaviour. We are even fearful of the possibility of a sober future.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

One of the most widely recognised therapies to help addiction is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

CBT is a talking therapy which is used to support individuals who are suffering from addiction issues, compulsive behaviours, and also for those who have experienced childhood trauma.

The method behind cognitive behavioural therapy is focused on helping an individual change or adapt their negative behaviour and replace it with positive behaviour.

It works on thoughts, beliefs, and memories, which are thought to have contributed to a person’s addiction. 

Through CBT, a therapist can work through a client’s negative thoughts and beliefs and help them to think them through rationally. These thoughts and feelings finally being replaced by positive thoughts and behaviour.   

Getting Addiction Treatment

When deciding to tackle addiction, it’s vital to challenge your fears and face up to your past. And accept that change is for the better.

The best way to do this is with the support and guidance of professionals. 

When you make the decision to seek help for addiction, you must accept that successful recovery can only happen if you choose to live up to your past. Only then can you let go of the demons that are binding you to addictive behaviour.

Many addicts spend a lifetime avoiding these fears or detaching themselves from them. We understand that being forced to address these issues can be hard.

At White River Manor our specialist team have decades of experience treating addiction. We use a 360º whole-person approach, which Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, together with methods such as Adult-Child Therapy, Trauma Specific Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy.

It is our objective to help you leave the future behind and live in the present. 

We tailor the program to individual experiences which helps to make addiction treatment more effective. 


If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction linked to childhood trauma, please contact our team for a confidential and informal chat about how we can help you start living in the present and looking forward to the future. 

Posted on May 22nd, 2020 by

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