Addiction is an extremely prevalent epidemic across the United States. According to a report conducted by the Surgeon General, one in seven Americans is expected to develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives and only one in ten of these individuals will actually receive the proper treatment. The disease of addiction is often stigmatized by society and debated as being an ailment of the weak-minded, criminal, and morally inept individuals. Despite the preconceived notions, addiction is more complex than the average media depiction.

Addiction is defined as a disease of the brain that is deeply connected with trauma and abuse. For example, more than 25% of adult trauma survivors develop an unhealthy relationship with substances. Nearly 40% of individuals suffering from PTSD also suffer from a co-occurring substance use disorder.

Rates of addiction and adult trauma are very high. However, survivors of childhood trauma are often worse. The psychological and emotional development of a child can be severely damaged by trauma. Therefore, children survivors of trauma are at a much higher risk of developing a substance use disorder as a means of coping with the aftermath of trauma and associated emotions.

What is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma may come in many different forms. Some of these experiences are immediately recognizable as traumatic. However, many adults who have experienced childhood trauma may live with the aftermath but do not identify themselves as having traumatic histories. Ultimately, the individuals are unable to connect their subsequent emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to childhood trauma.

According to SAMHSA: “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Traumatic events may include the following:

  • Neglect
  • Abandonment
  • Sexual Violence
  • Physical Violence
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Major accidents
  • Major illnesses or medical procedures
  • Witnessing violence
  • Historical trauma
  • Bullying
  • Natural disasters
  • War/Terrorism
  • Displacement
  • Traumatic grief (separation from a parent, divorce, death of a family member)

The Effect of Trauma on the Developing Brain

Developing brains are often adaptable and easily impressionable. The developing brain of a child can quickly change to adapt to meet an environment, to learn and retain new information, and to grow rapidly as he/she matures. When trauma is present, the same plasticity that enables a child to absorb information can become harmful. As the child adapts to harmful behavior he/she may also feel inhibited by fear and adapt rapidly to a negative environment as they do in a positive atmosphere.


Children who are exposed to trauma during childhood are more likely to suffer from underlying mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. This increases the probability of the individual developing a substance use disorder.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Studies show that trauma directly impacts negative, impulsive, and unhealthy behaviors such as overeating, excessive drinking, smoking, and drug abuse. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scale is proven to correlate with substance abuse disorders. Individuals who suffer from more adverse experiences are more susceptible to have mental, physical and substance use disorders.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study provides compelling evidence that people with drug addictions report to experiencing high percentages of childhood trauma.

  • For each noted adversity, the risk for early initiation of substance abuse increases two to four times.
  • Subjects with five or more ACEs are seven to 10 times more likely to become substance abusers.
  • Nearly two-thirds of IV drug users report abusive and traumatic childhood events
  • Individuals with three or more traumatic childhood experiences have higher rates not just of alcohol and drug abuse, but also depression, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and heart disease, according to an ACEs study.

Using Drugs and Alcohol to Cope

Children who experience trauma adapt to an entirely different reality. Developing children are incapable of creating a point of reference to process experiences such as abuse, loss, or even a car accident. Therefore, as these children grow older they may self-medicate, act out, become codependent, and use outside factors to soothe their fears. For example, children may use food, safety blankets, latching onto a parent, and defiance to soothe fears and mitigate trauma. These “innocent” forms of self-medication can manifest into alcohol and drugs as the child grows older.

Substance abuse is often an unhealthy coping mechanism for creating comfort and relief. Many trauma survivors struggle with regulating emotions, managing stress, and controlling their behaviors. This unhealthy pattern affects self-esteem, personal growth, and overall development. Children survivors of trauma are more likely to use drugs or alcohol as a means to cope with traumatic memories of the past.

Addressing Childhood Trauma in Addiction Treatment

The purpose of addiction treatment is to help an individual overcome his/her dependence on drugs and alcohol by identifying triggers, disruptive thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors. Simply focusing on the addiction is not as effective as addressing all aspects of any underlying mental health disorders, past traumas, and other negative experiences. Failing to address underlying issues often heightens the risk of relapse. Addiction treatment is most effective when the focus is on the needs of the whole person. This means acknowledging the psychological and neurological underpinnings of addictive behaviors. For adult trauma survivors, a dual diagnosis treatment program will address these issues through trauma-focused therapies and any other co-occurring disorders.

Entering a dual diagnosis treatment program means seeking out a rehabilitation center that can treat the trauma and pain at the root of addiction, rather than just treating the addiction. It is important to find a center that offers therapy, personal care, skills development, coping mechanism development, and stress management. These skills, while not directly related to getting clean or sober, will allow an addicted person to build up a foundation with which they can use to stay clean. As a result, they no longer need drugs or alcohol to function.

At Comprehensive Wellness Centers, we fully understand the physical, psychological and spiritual impacts of addiction. As recovering addicts or family members of those suffering from substance abuse, the treatment staff at our drug rehab center in Palm Beach, Florida has the experience, drive, and dedication to help you reach your goal of a successful and lifelong recovery. No matter how severe your addiction may be, Comprehensive Treatment Centers can tailor an individualized program that meets your unique needs.