Understanding the link between Childhood Trauma and Adult Addictions

Understanding the link between Childhood Trauma and Adult Addictions

Childhood trauma can be defined as serious Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in which children experience a range of experiences that classify as psychological trauma including neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and physical abuse (Lupien et al., 2009). It is widely embedded in psychological literature that experiencing childhood trauma can have a profound psychological, physiological, and sociological impact and result in negative lasting effects on mental health and well-being of individuals, often being linked to adult ADHD, unsocial behaviour, PTSD, sleep disturbances, and addictive behaviours.

As Psychologists study the effects of childhood trauma, the chilling aftermath of physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and neglect become more evident as the child moves into adulthood. These formative scars leave behind imprints that serve as a reminder of the trauma the child experiences, and can result in the recall of traumatic memories, altered perceptions, and distorted self-worth.

Childhood trauma can affect a significant portion of the adult population worldwide. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, Kaiser Permanente), their research concluded “64% of individuals have experienced at least one traumatic event during their childhood”.

Research has consistently supported the notion that childhood trauma significantly increases an individual’s vulnerability to develop addictions into adulthood. A plethora of research has demonstrated that numerous mechanisms contribute to this link, including:

  1. BRAIN DEVELOPMENT AND REGULATION: Traumatic experiences during childhood can disrupt brain development and result in impaired emotional regulation. This can result in difficulties coping with stress, which can lead to an increased risk of developing addictive behaviours and a form of self-medication.
  2. EMOTIONAL DYSREGULATION: Childhood trauma can cause ongoing emotional dysregulation in adulthood, which makes individuals more susceptible to use substances or engage in addictive behaviours to cope with overwhelming emotions
  3. NEUROCHEMICAL CHANGES: Trauma can alter the chemistry of the brain, affecting neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which contribute crucial roles in pleasure, reward, and emotional regulation. This altered neurochemistry can pre-dispose individuals to seek substances or behaviours that can temporarily regulate these imbalances.
  4. LEARNED COPING MECHANISMS: Childhood trauma can teach individuals maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as self-isolation, emotional avoidance, or substance use. These coping strategies may persist into adulthood as addictive behaviours.

Specific Addiction Types Linked to Childhood Trauma:

Research indicates that childhood trauma can contribute to various types of addiction, including:

–  Substance Use Disorders (SUD): Individuals who experience childhood trauma are at an increased risk of developing SUD. Coping mechanisms and altered brain chemistry can contribute to the development and maintenance of addiction.

Behavioural Addictions: Childhood trauma can also lead to the development of non-substance addictive behaviours, such as gambling, sex addictions, or compulsive binge eating. These behaviours may serve as an escape mechanisms or provide temporary relief from emotional distress.

Co-Occurring Disorders: Childhood trauma is strongly associated with the development of co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These mental health conditions can further increase the risk of developing an addiction.

Seeking Help and Treatment:

Acknowledging the connection between childhood trauma and addiction is crucial for effective treatment. A comprehensive treatment plan should address both the addiction itself, and the underlying trauma. Evidence-based therapies like Trauma-Informed Care, Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and Eye-Movement De-Sensitisation and Re-Processing (EMDR) are commonly used to address trauma and addiction simultaneously.


CBT is a type of talking therapy that aims to help individuals identify and change negative thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. It focuses on developing healthier coping mechanisms and reframing negative beliefs. In the context of trauma and addiction, CBT can help individuals to challenge maladaptive thinking patterns and develop more adaptive was of dealing with triggers.


EMDR is a specialised therapy initially developed to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It involves guided eye movements while the individual recalls distressing memories. This process is thought to help the person reprocess traumatic experiences by facilitating the brain’s natural information processing system. EMDR can help reduce the intensity of traumatic memories, decrease associated distress, and improve resilience.

Both CBT and EMDR therapies are effective in addressing trauma-related symptoms and addiction. Trauma often underlies addiction issues, as individuals may turn to substances or addictive behaviours as maladaptive coping mechanisms to numb distressing emotions or memories. By addressing the underlying trauma, these therapies can help reduce the need for such coping mechanisms.

Other forms of support can include:

Joining Support Groups: These support groups can provide a valuable sense of community, understanding, and solidarity. Support groups specifically tailored for adult survivors of  childhood trauma, such as Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA) or Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA), can help individuals to share their experiences, learn from others, and develop healthy coping strategies.

Rehab or Treatment Centres: Depending on the severity of the addiction, entering a rehab or treatment centre may be necessary. these facilities provide structured environments, profession counselling, and therapies to address both addiction and underlying trauma. Inpatient or outpatient options are available depending on individual needs.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): In some cases, medication can be helpful to manage withdrawal symptoms or cravings during the recovery process. A Psychiatrist may prescribe medications such as Naltrexone or Buprenorphine to assist with addiction treatment, but it is essential to speak to a medical professional before starting medication.

Understanding the link between childhood trauma and adult addictions is an essential step in creating effective prevention strategies and treatment interventions. By providing appropriate support, early identification, and treatment for childhood trauma, we can help break the cycle of addiction and empower individuals to lead healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

If you would like to know more about how My Family Psychologist can help, call us on 07801 079555 or email luisa@myfamilypsychologist.com

Scroll to Top