Connections Between Trauma and Addiction


People who have experienced trauma typically need to devise coping strategies for handling stress. Unfortunately for many people, addiction becomes a source of comfort and escape. The association between trauma and the development of various addiction later in life may be even more profound than we realize.

A strong friend of mine, who wished to remain anonymous, was kind enough to describe her experience of trauma and subsequent addiction as follows: “I remember my mom physically abusing me and my dad saying that it was my fault since I tested her patience and lived in a fantasy world. [My parents] would constantly tell me I was crazy, drag me to doctors for issues and always find something wrong with me. [My addiction] was a coping mechanism from my dog dying, my mom having cancer, my best friend stealing, and all the abuse from my past”.

According to one study, which utilized a questionnaire administered to women who were seeking treatment for comorbid post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorder (SUD), nine out of ten participants reported a history of childhood trauma. The researchers also found that the severity of the trauma was positively correlated with the severity of various symptoms, such as “depressive symptoms, dysthymic symptoms, socio-phobic symptoms, and distrust,” as well as an earlier onset of substance use (Lotzin et al., 2019).

In addition to substance use, PTSD has been linked to less externally obvious addictions, such as food addiction. Earlier this year, one study reviewed overlaps and distinctions between the histories and behaviors of a sample of women with food addiction and substance use disorders, compared with a control sample of women without addictions. Through administering various standardized questionnaires and scales, they found that “women with SUD or food addiction have similar PTSD and depression symptom profiles, and exhibited more problems with emotional dysregulation as compared to [the control group]”. They go on to suggest that “food addiction and SUD [may] have similar neurobiological signatures, including abnormalities in reward pathways, and may respond to similar types of treatment” (Hardy et al., 2019).

Childhood adversity, such as abuse, trauma, and neglect yield alterations in the dopaminergic, oxytocin, and glucocorticoid systems of people, as described in detail by one study. These changes exist molecularly, neuro-endocrinologically, and ultimately behaviorally. People with trauma thus suffer from such afflictions as insecure attachment style, risk-seeking, and symptoms of depression and anxiety. They are more susceptible, down to the molecular level, of developing addictions later in life (Kim et al., 2019).

It is vital to always keep in mind that people who are addicted to drugs are more often than not, simply coping with unimaginable pain in a destructive way. The more resources they have available to them, the more hope there is that they can live their lives free from the bondage of addiction. As the brain is specifically wired to respond to rewards, there is nothing wrong with people who use. When provided with alternative coping skills and a supportive network, it becomes possible for them to heal from both addiction and the damage of an adverse childhood.

References

Hardy, R., Fani, N., Jovanovic, T., & Michopoulos, V. (2018). Food addiction and substance addiction in women: Common clinical characteristics. Appetite, 120, 367–373. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.09.026

Kim, S., Kwok, S., Mayes, L. C., Potenza, M. N., Rutherford, H., & Strathearn, L. (2017). Early adverse experience and substance addiction: dopamine, oxytocin, and glucocorticoid pathways. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1394(1), 74–91. doi:10.1111/nyas.13140

Lotzin, A., Grundmann, J., Hiller, P., Pawils, S., & Schäfer, I. (2019). Profiles of Childhood

Trauma in Women With Substance Use Disorders and Comorbid Posttraumatic Stress Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 674. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00674

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