How Childhood Trauma Can Lead To Addiction

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We have seen in other articles that I have published on this site that those of us who have suffered significant childhood trauma are more likely than others to develop addictions (often multiple addictions) during our teens and adulthood. Why should this be?

Experiments involving rats help to cast light upon this. These experiments involve measuring how addicted to cocaine rats become in two different conditions. These two conditions are as follows:

Condition One:  

A solitary rat in an impoverished environment (i.e. one in which there is no stimulation, just an empty cage).

Condition Two:

The rat has the company of other rats and has an enriched (i.e. stimulating) environment.


– In condition one rats became extremely addicted to cocaine, becoming heavily addicted

– In condition, two rats ingested far less cocaine (75% less) and did not become addicted

(The psychologist, Professor Bruce Alexander, pioneered these studies).

If we extrapolate from this research (i.e. apply it to humans) it would be expected that :

Individuals with empty, lonely lives are significantly more likely to become addicts and turn to drug abuse than individuals with full and socially integrated lived. Indeed, there is much research evidence to support this view and a growing school of thought is of the view that a person’s life situation plays a more important role in an individuals addiction/drug abuse than the addictive substance itself.


It is likely, then, that a person’s life circumstances play a vital role in whether or not a person becomes an addict. Therefore, it follows that the most effective way to reduce addiction is to help addicts/drug abusers re-connect with society and gain dependable social support.

Because those who have suffered childhood trauma are more likely to develop chaotic, disenfranchised lives as adults, as many of the articles on this site have shown, such people are at greater risk than others of living in the kind of social isolation which fosters drug addiction.

Study Involving Individuals Who Had Experienced Childhood Trauma:

Another study, involving humans and carried out by Khoury et al., (2010) found that 60 per cent of individuals who had experienced significant childhood trauma developed problems relating to addiction later on in life and, also, there was a positive correlation between the severity of PTSD symptoms and the number of addictive substances that the individual user.

Review Of Studies:

Jacobsen et al., (2001) carried out a review of the literature on the link between PTSD and substance misuse and confirmed that the two were highly, positively correlated. Jacobsen and his colleagues concluded that, according to the literature they reviewed, it was likely that PTSD and substance abuse disorders were ‘functionally related’ and that PTSD frequently leads to dependence upon addictive substances in an attempt to reduce symptoms of PTSD.

Jacobsen and his colleagues also noted that, due to dependence, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as physiological arousal may make PTSD symptoms even more severe and that this, in turn, may lead to relapse.

Treating Addiction :

Addicts, sadly, are too frequently blamed for not being able to overcome their addictions; however, this can be based on the misunderstanding that the addict must be hedonistic. This, though, is to miss the point.

The addict is not so much seeking pleasure but, rather, is desperately seeking relief from the intolerable emotional pain (dissociating). In other words, the addict is self – anaesthetizing.

Very frequently, the unendurable mental anguish that the addict feels stems from their childhood trauma.

Internal versus external coping mechanisms:

It is necessary for the addict to stop relying on external coping mechanisms (such as alcohol and drugs) to cope with their psychological pain but instead cultivate internal coping mechanisms such as:

– learning how to self-soothe

– using visualization techniques (such as visualizing a safe place whenever, for example, an incident occurs which triggers anxieties linked to their childhood trauma).

Survivor versus victim:

If no therapeutic work has taken place in order to help the addict resolve the feelings associated with his/her childhood trauma, s/he is likely to remain trapped in the role of victim (in effect, their psychological and emotional development is arrested at the time of the trauma).

However, when therapy begins it can help the addict develop an alternative view of him/herself – that of a brave and strong survivor.

The kinds of childhood trauma that are particularly likely to cause symptoms such as addictions and arrested psychological and emotional development include:

– abandonment

– rejection

– being treated with contempt/disdain (eg always being on the receiving end of ‘put-downs by a parent/parents/primary caregiver)

– sexual and physical abuse

– verbal and emotional abuse

Such treatment frequently causes the child to develop what psychologists refer to as a negative cognitive triad, i.e:

– a negative view of self

– a negative view of others

– a negative view of the future

In the absence of effective therapeutic intervention, these negative attitudes may endure for a lifetime.

Other symptoms the individual who suffered childhood trauma may develop are:

– a deep and abiding sense of alienation from others/society

– avoidant behaviour, including fear of intimacy (due to fears of being vulnerable to rejection if s/he gets too emotionally close to others).

– an irrational sense of shame

– self-destructive behaviour

When talking to a mental health-care clinician about one’s experience of childhood trauma, it is very important to provide the following details:

– age at the time of trauma

– severity of the trauma

– who committed the abuse e.g.  stranger, family member (more harmful if a family member)

– was it a single incident or ongoing?

– was the event/ act/s intentional or accidental?

– was escape possible?

– what was the level of severity?

– was the trauma response one of flight, fight or freeze?



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RELATED: Childhood Trauma Leading To Addiction – The Signs



Jacobsen et al. 2010. Substance Use Disorders in Patients With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Review of the Literature.The American Journal Of Psychiatry. Published Online:





David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).