How Childhood Trauma Can Lead to Addiction

Updated: Nov 23, 2019




An Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) can be any traumatic event that happens to a child. Of course, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are considered ACEs. However, you might be surprised to know that a child doesn’t have to endure extreme circumstances for them to qualify as having had an ACE. Unfortunately, common life experiences can prove traumatic to a young brain.

Adverse childhood experiences can be one-time incidents or ongoing conditions, like bullying, poverty, divorce, household substance abuse or mental illness, racism, foster care, and parental death, separation or incarceration. Trauma is whatever is upsetting to that particular child, and it can change their developing brain, both physically and functionally. ACEs often show up in adults as a chronic disease, mental illness, addiction, and violence.


Early Adversity Leads to Addiction The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and the impact they had on health and well-being later in life. The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more kinds of childhood adversity experienced – the higher their risk was of negative life outcomes.

For example, having an ACE score of four nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer, while also increasing the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. The total number of ACEs of any kind had a strong association with drug use. According to one study:

“Up to two-thirds of drug use problems may be traced back to ACEs.”

The ACE Study also found that the particular types of ACEs didn't matter. An ACE score of four that included divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member and a depressed family member had the same statistical negative consequences as an ACE score of four that included living with an alcoholic, verbal abuse, and emotional and physical neglect. (For more information, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to Got Your ACE Score?)


ACEs Cause Toxic Stress Experiencing ACEs damages a child's brain and body because they can cause chronic toxic stress where the fight-or-flight response stays activated. Excessive activation of stress response systems affects a child’s developing brain, immune system, metabolic regulatory systems, and cardiovascular system. When toxic stress response occurs continually, or is triggered by multiple sources, it can have a cumulative toll on a person's physical and mental health for their lifetime. When a child experiences multiple ACEs in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.

Addiction resulting from ACEs makes a lot of sense when you think of addiction as self-soothing, coping behaviours. Dr Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, says that's what addictions really are. Sumrok says: “Addiction shouldn’t be called 'addiction'. It should be called 'ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking'. Ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking (what traditionalists call addiction) is a normal response to the adversity experienced in childhood, just like bleeding is a normal response to being stabbed."

A child's brain experiencing chronic stress learns to adapt. It becomes hyper-vigilant - always on guard. The childhood years are full of many important developmental milestones in terms of brain pathways, attachment, coping mechanisms and learning how to relate to others and stress. Those experiencing ACEs in their early years often develop survival mechanisms that become less than helpful in adulthood, like addictions.


It’s Never Too Late to Rewire the Brain The presence of an ACE does not guarantee an addiction, mental health condition, or poor life outcome. Positive experiences and supportive relationships with adults can protect children and prevent some of the negative physical and mental outcomes even after trauma has occurred. One of the many powerful findings of recent brain research is neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change physical form and functionality based on input. Neuroplasticity is how the brain gets altered by childhood experiences in the first place. It's also how it can heal. Incredible and promising work being is being done with trauma-informed practices and therapies utilizing neuroplasticity.


At Start Recovery, we understand how addiction happens in your brain and how to harness neuroplasticity in the recovery process. Start Recovery will work with you as an individual, putting together a personalized care plan to ensure that you have the best possible information, help and guidance in your recovery journey from substance abuse, alcoholism, or addiction.



Thanks to Debbie Hampton from The Best Brain Possible for this guest blog article written specifically for Start Recovery.


About The Author

Debbie Hampton recovered from depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an inspirational and educational writer for Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen, and more. On her website, The Best Brain Possible, Debbie shares how she rebuilt her brain and life. You can learn the steps to a better you in her book, Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain or get inspiration from her memoir, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: How These Thing Almost Killed And Healed Me.

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