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Understanding the Link between Traumatic Childhood Experiences and Substance Abuse Disorder

Many people who struggle with substance abuse disorder and addiction wonder, “Why am I like this?” For a large percentage of individuals who have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope, they may have already suspected that the root of their addiction lies in their childhood. A number of recent research studies support that inkling, finding that substance abuse is strongly linked to childhood trauma. But traumatic experiences as a child do not doom anyone to a life of addictive behaviors.

Understanding Childhood Trauma

There are countless experiences that can make childhood and adolescence more challenging than “normal” (whatever that is), but not all of these experiences count as trauma. Research conducted to find links between childhood trauma and adult behaviors typically use a limited set of experiences, including:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Loss of a parent
  • Witnessing violence or hearing of a loved one’s traumatic experience
  • Life-threatening injury

Although a short list, one research study* indicated that more than 30% of all children in the study experienced one traumatic event. Nearly 15% experienced three or more traumatic events.

Understanding the Link between Trauma and Substance Abuse

Research indicates very strong links between childhood trauma and substance abuse. According to one study, children who experience trauma are 120% more likely to be clinically depressed and/or abuse substances in adulthood. Similar links between childhood trauma and psychiatric disorders and family instability were also found.

Despite the grim numbers, researchers still do not say that the link is between childhood trauma and substance abuse disorder is causal. Childhood trauma seems to change the brain chemistry of children, making them more susceptible to addictive behaviors. But creating conditions that make addiction more likely does not make an addict. There is one factor that childhood trauma cannot dictate—choice.

The Good News

Statistics from research about childhood trauma and substance abuse disorders are bleak. They paint a picture of children who are doomed to an adult life overshadowed by the lifestyle and consequences of substance abuse and addiction. They imply that children who, by no fault of their own, suffered trauma, go on to have no control over the direction of their lives.

At Duke City Recovery Toolbox, we know that’s not the case. Everyone, no matter how bad your childhood, no matter what your brain chemistry, has the ability to overcome substance abuse. Everyone has choice—the choice to change your life and the choice to ask for help. And DCRT offers the help you need.

We take a holistic approach to recovery so that you get what you need for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual support. We develop an individualized program that offers the best chances for your success, and it all starts with a simple email, phone call or visit.




* All statistics reported come from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, summarized in NPR’s Nov. 9, 2018 Public Health article, “Should Childhood Trauma Be Treated as a Public Health Crisis?”