Traumatic experiences can have lasting effects at any age, but childhood trauma is particularly problematic because young children lack the maturity to process their experiences in a healthy way. As such, experiencing childhood trauma is strongly linked to an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder as an adult.
Evaluating the Effects of Childhood Trauma
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is one of the largest investigations of the effects of childhood abuse and neglect on health and wellbeing. The study looked at the experiences of over 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California from 1995 to 1997. The CDC has continued the study by regularly monitoring the medical status of the original participants.
The ACE study linked childhood trauma to increases in:
- Disrupted neurodevelopment
- Social, emotional, and cognitive impairment
- Adoption of health risk behaviors
- Disease, disability, and social problems
- Early death
Types of trauma looked at in the study include:
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Living with a family member suffering from mental illness
- Living in a home with a relative who was sent to prison
- Parental divorce or separation
- Witnessing your mother treated violently
- Living with a family member with a substance abuse problem
The more types of trauma a child experiences, the higher the risk of problems becomes. In terms of addiction, consider the following:
- An ACE score of 4 or more raises your adult alcoholism risk by more than 500%.
- Each increase in a person’s ACE score increases the likelihood of early illicit drug use by 2- to 4-fold.
- A man with an ACE score of 6 is 46 times more likely to become an IV drug user than a man with an ACE score of 0.
Higher ACE scores are also linked to increased rates of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. These conditions often lead to addiction, since the societal stigma surrounding mental health issues may encourage people to self-medicate their symptoms with drugs or alcohol.
Although the ACE study shows a strong correlation between trauma exposure and substance abuse, it is not a crystal ball. The study does not mean to suggest that every child who experiences traumatic events will have an addiction as an adult.
Protective factors that reduce a child’s risk of addiction and other mental health problems include:
- Parental employment
- Adequate housing
- Parental education, including a knowledge of child development
- Supportive social networks to rely on in times of need
- Adults outside the family who act as role models and mentors, such as teachers, coaches, or worship leaders
These protective factors help develop resilience, which is an individual’s ability to adapt to stress and adversity. People who are resilient look at problematic situations as opportunities to learn and grow. They take steps to improve their situation when they can, but they do not dwell on the past or factors that are out of their control.
Resilience is often thought of as a trait that certain individuals are simply born with, but it’s actually a set of skills that can be taught. The Mayo Clinic offers suggestions for building resiliency at home. Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, can also help a person develop their resilience.
Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment
When someone who has experienced childhood trauma develops a substance use disorder, treatment needs to focus on healing the mind, body, and spirit. Detox can remove addictive substances from the body, but a holistic approach is necessary to build the foundation for recovery.
Abstinence is only the beginning. A lasting recovery requires a full continuum of care that addresses the underlying factors that contributed to development of the substance use disorder.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma-informed addiction treatment has the following elements:
- It realizes the widespread impact of trauma on an individual and understands potential paths for recovery.
- It recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in a person seeking help for a substance use disorder.
- It fully integrates current knowledge about the effects of trauma into program policies, procedures, and practices.
- It seeks to avoid re-traumatization as clients build the skills necessary for a sustained recovery.
Mountain Laurel Recovery Center offers trauma-informed addiction treatment that provides clients with personalized attention designed to meet their individual needs. Programs promote a sense of empowerment by giving clients the opportunity to make choices about their care. Collaboration and peer support encourage a deeper connection to the recovery community, setting the stage for a lasting recovery.
Our gender-specific treatment approach can be particularly helpful for individuals who have experienced sexual abuse, domestic violence, or other issues they do not wish to discuss in a mixed-gender environment. Additionally, we offer a family program that seeks to educate loved ones about the disease of addiction while encouraging the development of positive communication skills and personal resilience.