The Link Between Childhood Trauma & Addiction as an Adult

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Contributor: Staff at Sierra Tucson

For a person who has a traumatic past, the defining event may always be lingering in the back of their mind. Sometimes, the work to suppress trauma-related memories is more difficult than actually processing them. But even if we do everything in our power to work through painful moments and develop coping skills, our best-laid plans to address childhood trauma don’t always help us move forward from our pasts.

For so many who are struggling with trauma, there is a common link: a memory or experience that occurred during childhood. It’s not easy for an adult who recently went through a traumatic event to reach out for help, so imagine how difficult it can be for a child to even consider that help might be available.

For a child who does not have an advocate who can look out for their needs and best interests, it may be impossible. In some cases, the person who may have been that child’s most likely front line of support may be the one most closely involved in that traumatic action.

So, where does a person who has unprocessed trauma turn for support as they become an adult? Often, unfortunately, the answer is addiction.

The Dangerous Path Ahead for Childhood Trauma Survivors

There have been a number of studies that confirm the link between traumatic experiences as a child and addictive behaviors as an adult. Perhaps the most notable is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, which used data collected during two waves from 1995-1997 — surveying 17,000 participants — to examine potentially traumatic events that occurred among children ages 0-17 [1].

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The initial ACEs study found that, in the United States, 60% of adults had experienced at least one traumatic childhood event. Researchers found that as the number of ACEs increased, the risk for alcohol and other drug use in adulthood did as well. More specific evidence includes the following:

  • Almost two-thirds of people who used intravenous drugs reported abusive and traumatic childhood events.
  • Individuals who had at least one ACE were two to four times more likely to start using substances at an early age.
  • Individuals who had five or more ACEs were up to 10 times more likely to abuse substances as adults.

As you might expect, substance abuse isn’t the only risk factor for those who experienced childhood trauma. Additionally, people who had three or more ACEs had considerably higher rates of depression, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases and heart disease.

The Mechanics Behind Childhood Trauma Leading to Addiction

As the brain accumulates excessive stress, it interferes with the development of healthy neural, immune and hormonal systems and can alter the expression of our DNA. If an individual has multiple ACEs over time and does not have a certain level of support, their nervous, endocrine and immune systems may be compromised [2]. That can have drastic negative effects on attention, behavior and decision-making, areas that can help a person fight off the urge to use and, eventually, abuse substances.

The biggest reason anyone uses or abuses substances is for an immediate psychological effect. Alcohol and other drugs help alter the way a person feels by enhancing positive reinforcement and reducing negative reinforcement.

But for a person whose stress system has been dysregulated from trauma, certain drugs — alcohol, opioids and marijuana, to name a few — serve to slow down the central nervous system [3]. Often, this is what victims of trauma are seeking — to regulate their mood and dispel intrusive thoughts. Substances can often help facilitate a state of numbness that is all too temporary. But for a person who is struggling to unpack a history of trauma, it’s a path that seems to offer a much-needed reprieve — however brief it may be.

Finding Help That Accounts for the Past

Boy dealing with Childhood TraumaTrauma-informed care is an approach that assumes that an individual is more likely than not to have experienced a traumatic event. Statistically, that lines up. About 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives [4].

Trauma-informed care recognizes that traumatic experiences overwhelm and violate individuals. It attempts to restore a sense of safety, power and worth for people who are struggling with both addictions and traumatic experiences.

Establishing a baseline of a facility and a treatment team as trustworthy is critical. By creating a safe environment, a trauma-informed treatment center can be best to set patients up to learn coping skills and provide the opportunities for choice and control that are often vital in these scenarios.

Trauma and addiction do not always go hand in hand, but the frequency with which the latter follows the former is hard to ignore. As we learn more about how to approach treatment for these overlapping concerns, we’ll be able to help the many individuals who struggle with them build the foundation for significantly better outcomes.


[1] Violence prevention: About the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. (2021, April 6). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[2] Adverse childhood experiences. (2022, Aug. 23). National Conference of State Legislatures.

[3] Giordano, A. (2021, Sept. 25). Why trauma can lead to addiction. Psychology Today.

[4] How common is PTSD in adults? (n.d.). U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

About Our Sponsor:

Sierra Tucson BannerLocated in Tucson, Arizona, Sierra Tucson is the nation’s leading residential and outpatient treatment center for substance use disorders, trauma-related conditions, chronic pain, mood and anxiety disorders, and co-occurring concerns. We provide integrated, holistic care for adults age 18 and older of all genders, including specialized programs for military members, first responders, and healthcare workers. Sierra Tucson was ranked No. 1 in Newsweek’s list of Best Addiction Treatment Centers in Arizona for 2020.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on September 8, 2022
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 8, 2022
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.