The Impact of Childhood Trauma on the Formation of Addiction

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Childhood trauma can have a significant impact on the formation of addiction later in life. Experiencing trauma during childhood, such as abuse, neglect, violence, or living in a chaotic environment, can have lasting effects on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. These experiences can interfere with normal brain development and increase the risk of developing various mental health issues, including addiction.

If you or a loved one is struggling to overcome addiction, has experienced childhood trauma, or suffers from a co-occurring mental health disorder, you are urged to seek professional help today. Guardian Recovery is committed to helping individuals break free from substance misuse by addressing the underlying factors that contribute to their addictive behaviors. Contact us to learn more about our integrated programs and individualized treatment plans.

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How Childhood Trauma Alters Brain Development & Function

Childhood trauma can have significant effects on brain development and function. However, the brain is resilient and has a high capacity for healing and recovery.

Ways Trauma Can Alter the Brain Include:

  • Hyperactive Stress Response—Traumatic experiences during childhood can result in increased levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can have detrimental effects on brain structures, functions, and connectivity of cells over time. (1)
  • Structural Changes—Childhood trauma can affect the development and structure of key brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. (2) Disruption in these areas can result in emotional dysregulation and poor self-control, heightened anxiety, and an inability to store and retrieve memories properly.
  • Neurotransmitter Imbalances—Mood regulation can be disrupted by imbalances in serotonin and dopamine, causing difficulties with reward processing and impulse control.
  • Altered Brain Plasticity—The nervous system has the ability to change its activity in response to stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections. Trauma can impair the brain’s capacity to rewire and adapt in response to new experiences or learning, making it challenging to develop healthy coping mechanisms and recover from trauma’s effects.

Epigenetic Changes—Without altering DNA, trauma can induce modifications in gene expression that can influence how genes are turned on or off, potentially affecting stress response systems, neurotransmitter regulation, and other processes.

Childhood Trauma as a Contributing Factor for High-Risk Behaviors, Substance Misuse, & Addiction

Childhood trauma is a significant contributing factor to high-risk behaviors, including substance use.

For example, individuals may adopt dysfunctional coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional pain or negative thoughts associated with the trauma. Moreover, childhood trauma can lead individuals to use drugs or alcohol to disconnect from their emotions and cope with overwhelming or painful feelings.

Trauma-related emotional dysregulation may lead to rash decision-making, a failure of inhibitory control, and an increased likelihood of seeking immediate gratification through substance use. (3) Individuals may also engage in high-risk behaviors such as substance use, self-harm, or reckless actions as a form of self-punishment.

The Role of Trauma in the Development of Co-Occurring Disorders

Trauma plays a significant role in the development of co-occurring disorders, which refer to the presence of both a substance use disorder and one or more mental health disorders.

Roles That Trauma Plays in Comorbid Disorder Development Include:

  • Self-Medication—Individuals may turn to substance use as a way to self-medicate or alleviate the symptoms of trauma. Both addiction and trauma-related conditions are closely associated with mental health disorders.
  • Neurobiological Changes—Trauma can have profound effects on the brain, including altering stress response systems and reward pathways. (4) These changes can increase the risk of developing both mental health and substance use disorders.
  • Shared Risk Factors—Trauma is associated with a range of social, environmental, and genetic factors that can contribute to the development of both mental health and substance use disorders.
  • Complex Trauma—Complex trauma involves repeated or prolonged exposure to traumatic events, often starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood. This can have a cumulative effect on mental health, increasing the likelihood of developing co-occurring disorders.

Impact on Coping and Emotion Regulation—Trauma can significantly disrupt healthy coping mechanisms and impair emotion regulation skills. Individuals who have experienced trauma may struggle to manage distressing emotions, leading to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

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Identifying the Connection Between Trauma & Relapse

There is a strong connection between trauma and relapse in individuals recovering from substance use disorders.

Connections Between Trauma & Relapse Include:

  • Triggering Traumatic Memories—Trauma can evoke distressing emotions and memories that can lead to intense cravings and the risk of turning back to self-medication as a means of escape.
  • Emotional Dysregulation—Unresolved trauma can lead to heightened emotional reactivity, impulsivity, and difficulty tolerating distress. This can increase the risk of returning to substance use as a way to regulate emotions or find temporary relief.
  • Self-Destructive Tendencies—Traumatic experiences can contribute to self-destructive behaviors, including substance misuse. (5) Individuals who have experienced trauma may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors or have a negative self-perception, which can undermine their recovery efforts.
  • Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders—Ongoing mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can increase the risk of relapse by intensifying emotional distress, impairing coping mechanisms, and increasing the desire to self-medicate.
  • Coping Deficits and Lack of Effective Strategies—Trauma can disrupt the development of healthy coping mechanisms, and individuals who have experienced trauma may have limited adaptive strategies for managing stress, triggers, and cravings.

Revictimization and Environmental Factors—Individuals may find themselves in environments or relationships that reinforce trauma and increase stress levels, which can create additional triggers, increase the risk of revictimization, and undermine the recovery process. (6)

The Impact of Emotional Neglect on Substance Use Disorders

Emotional neglect can have a significant impact on the development of substance use disorders in individuals who may struggle to express their emotions appropriately and effectively cope with stress. This can lead to substance use to numb emotional pain or escape from the difficult feelings associated with neglect.

Low self-esteem and self-worth can lead to self-destructive or self-sabotaging substance-using behaviors to escape from negative self-perceptions. In addition, attachment difficulties, such as struggles with trust, intimacy, and forming meaningful connections, can compel a person to use substances as a way to cope with the lack of support resulting from attachment issues.

Trauma-Informed Care in Addiction Treatment Programs

Trauma-informed care recognizes and addresses the impact of trauma on individuals seeking recovery from substance use disorders. (7)

Key Components of Trauma-Informed Care Include:

  • Safety and Trust—This involves ensuring physical and emotional safety, establishing clear boundaries, being sensitive to potential triggers, and fostering an atmosphere of trust and respect.
  • Trauma Screening and Assessment—This is conducted to understand the impact of an individual’s traumatic experiences and to inform personalized treatment plans and trauma-specific interventions.
  • Psychoeducation—Individuals are provided with education about the connections between trauma and addiction to develop a better understanding of their experiences and foster empowerment and self-awareness.
  • Promoting Emotion Regulation and Coping Skills—This includes providing individuals with tools and strategies to manage unpleasant emotions, stress, triggers, and cravings without turning to substances. Skills training may involve mindfulness techniques, relaxation exercises, and healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Peer Support—Peer support groups, such as 12-step programs, can provide individuals with a supportive network of peers who have experienced similar challenges. Peer support promotes empathy and a sense of belonging, which are crucial for trauma recovery.

Staff Training—Staff members must receive specialized training on trauma and its impact on individuals. This training helps staff develop the necessary skills to provide compassionate and trauma-informed care. (8)

Resolving Trauma Through Evidence-Based Therapies in Addiction Treatment

Resolving trauma is a critical aspect of addiction treatment, and evidence-based therapies have been developed to address both trauma and addiction concurrently.

Commonly Used Therapies for Trauma Include:

  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)—This intervention is a widely recognized therapy specifically designed for those who have experienced trauma. It aims to help individuals process their traumatic experiences, develop coping skills, and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs associated with the trauma.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)—This therapy focuses on processing traumatic memories and reducing their negative impact using guided eye movements while individuals recall distressing memories.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)—This is a comprehensive therapy that incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with mindfulness-based techniques. DBT helps individuals develop emotion regulation skills, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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