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Does Childhood Trauma Contribute To Substance Misuse?

Margot on November 29, 2017

The statistics are telling: data from the most recent National Survey of Adolescents and other studies indicate that one in four children in the United States experiences at least one potentially traumatic event before the age of 16. These “events” include sexual and physical abuse, neglect and the effects of poor parenting. It is an unfortunate but unsurprising truth that a strong relationship exists between trauma and substance misuse. But the connection between the two is rather complex. In a nutshell, the human brain has the innate ability to respond and adapt to environmental stimulation, which is called plasticity. As a child grows, networks are created in the brain through experience. These networks are called neural networks. They look like tiny fibers all connected and interlocked to one another.

The Childhood Brain and Experiencing Trauma

The growing brain and its connecting pathways are all influenced by experiences—both positive and negative. Obviously, good experiences are beneficial to the growing brain but bad experiences can disrupt the brain’s development resulting in cognitive, behavioral and social impairments. Thus, children who are victims of abuse or traumatic events must deal with the resulting stress which in turn impedes normal development of the brain. It is believed that these impairments make victims of childhood trauma vulnerable to substance abuse disorders. Also note that the type of experiences capable of impairing the brain and encouraging substance abuse varies: loss of a parent, a family member suffering from mental illness, neglect by parents, witnessing domestic abuse—these are all experiences which may increase the tendency for someone to become dependent on substances, or even compulsive eating, or compulsive sexual behavior. It’s additionally interesting to note that experiences that are traumatic to children may not be mentally impairing to an adult. That’s because children lack a frame of reference and are mostly unable to make sense of negative experiences.

Substance Misuse to Cope with Childhood Trauma

Secondly, during difficult times, children must rely on their loved ones for support. But when their loved ones are the source of the abuse, that loving, healing support is not available and thus not a healthy and imperative option. In an effort to cope, victims of childhood abuse or trauma can turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of self-medicating, hoping to mitigate the effects of their victimization and traumatic stress. It’s also not uncommon to see people modeling their behavior after parents or other adults who abused substances or used them to cope.

Treatment for Childhood Trauma and Substance Misuse

We know that roughly two-thirds of substance abusers suffered through emotional trauma or neglect in their younger years, causing an increased vulnerability to substance abuse. The good news is that childhood trauma that is tied to substance misuse and abuse can be effectively treated through ongoing support and intensive therapy. One must not believe that there is no way to mitigate traumatic experiences. It is possible to look back at the past and make peace with it. At Simple Path Recovery, we know that victims of childhood trauma often use substances to ease the pain and stress of their past. We know that helping our clients get to the root of their pain is the key to unlocking the door to a better life.

We view it as the ongoing personal journey of our clients—a journey that our skilled staff is eager to help them continue. All journeys, though, start with a single step. Please contact us to help you start down the road to mental and physical health and happiness. Make peace with your past.

The journey starts here.

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