Why Trauma Can Lead to Addiction

Numerous research studies confirm the link between traumatic experiences in childhood and addictive behaviors in adulthood. One of the most notable is the original study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by Felitti and colleagues (1998). ACEs included traumatic experiences within the first 18 years of life such as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, witnessing intimate partner violence, and living with a family member with a mental illness. The researchers found that as the number of ACEs increased, the risk of alcohol and other drug use in adulthood (Felitti et al., 1998).

After over 20 years of ACEs-related research, the scientific literature presents a robust association between ACE scores and addiction (Zarse et al., 2019). For instance, adults endorsing four or more ACEs are three times more likely to experience alcohol problems in adulthood (Dube et al., 2002), and those endorsing three or more ACEs are more than three times more likely to engage in problem gambling (Poole et al., 2017).

So, what is the link between early trauma and adult addiction? The answer is more complex than you may think.

Effects of Childhood Trauma

Traumatic experiences during childhood can have an array of detrimental effects on an individual depending upon the type of trauma, duration of the traumatic experience, a developmental period in which the trauma occurs, genetic make-up and gender of the individual experiencing the trauma, and the presence or absence of an attuned, supportive caretaker (De Bellis & Zisk, 2014; Levin et al., 2021; Nakazawa, 2015). The specific impact of childhood trauma is nuanced and complex, yet one common outcome is the dysregulation of the stress system (Burke Harris, 2018; Moustafa et al., 2021).

Our stress system is largely governed by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis, which prepares us to respond effectively to danger (Moustafa et al., 2021; Nakazawa, 2015; van der Kolk, 2014). When a stressor is identified, the HPA axis (in conjunction with other systems) prepares us for “fight or flight” by causing the secretion of stress hormones such as adrenaline and glucocorticoids. When our stress response is activated, we experience hyperarousal, increased blood pressure, rapid heart rate, fast breathing, and a sense of alarm (Burke Harris, 2018; Nakazawa, 2015; van der Kolk, 2014).

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