The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

For decades, the professional approach to addiction has been shifting away from shaming and blaming, and toward the belief that addiction is a normal and common biological response to adversity experienced in childhood. The popularization of this game-changing perspective is credited to Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, who began his crusade to change the narrative around addiction after treating Vietnam veterans with PTSD in the early 1980s.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) affect long-term health, and can include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to substances; depression and other mental illnesses; parental divorce or separation; incarceration or deportation of a family member; racism; involvement in the foster care system, and more. Clinicians like Dr. Sumrok administer an ACE assessment upon meeting a patient for the first time, and for good reason.

According to ACE studies, about 64% of people have at least one ACE, which can double to quadruple the likelihood of using drugs or alcohol, particularly at an early age. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and lung cancer and increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700%. People with a score of 5 or higher are seven to 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs and become addicted. Furthermore, these studies show that it doesn’t matter what type of trauma the patient experienced. Different combinations of ACEs produce the same statistical health consequences.

Considering potential childhood trauma is necessary for addressing one’s addiction.

This requisite has fortunately also normalized the concept of addiction as “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking” – it’s something one adopts as a coping behavior because they weren’t provided with a healthy alternative when they were young. This approach is not only supported by psychological research, it’s also the compassionate route to treating clients with substance abuse problems. Rather than labeling someone as an addict and punishing them for their behavior, clinicians like those at The Council find it’s kinder and more productive to address ACEs with their clients, and to help them seek comfort in other behaviors. Since its inception, the staff at the Center for Recovering Families is dedicated to helping their clients by looking at their trauma when appropriate and providing the necessary skills to deal with their feelings.

For more information about ACEs, read here. To calculate your ACE score, click here.

For questions about The Council’s assessment and treatment options, or if you or a loved one needs help, call (713) 914-0556 or contact us here.