Childhood Trauma and Substance Misuse

2 min read · 2 sections

Myriad factors can lead people to use and ultimately misuse substances. However, childhood trauma appears to be a key factor related to substance use disorders.

Childhood trauma can stem from any number of things, but some causes include neglect along with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. These traumatic experiences can make the individual more susceptible to cognitive deficits and psychiatric illnesses, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance misuse.1

Various studies support this link. For example, surveys of adolescents being treated for a substance use disorder indicate that more than 70% had a history of trauma exposure. Along these same lines, research indicates that up to 59% of young people with PTSD develop substance misuse issues.1

Clearly, childhood trauma and substance misuse are intertwined. But how and why?

How Can Trauma Lead to Substance Misuse?

Dealing with the adverse effects of childhood abuse can be overwhelming and painful. Young children tend to suppress emotions and memories during abusive episodes, whether they’re physical, sexual, or emotional in nature. They may dissociate from their surroundings in order to lessen the pain of trauma. However, dissociation doesn’t make the experience disappear. It just pushes it down beneath the surface, so to speak.

Later in adulthood, memories or triggered emotions often come flooding back. The person may not remember the exact details but can suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression due to the abuse.The Link Between Child Abuse and Substance Abuse

When faced with painful memories or mental health problems, a person’s first response is often to simply cope. Some do this through self-medicating, i.e., using a substance to attempt to quell uncomfortable emotions and painful memories.

The substance serves as a sort of “medicine” because it reduces the immediate pain. It often provides temporary relief from unhappy and painful feelings by releasing a burst of chemicals such as pain-relieving endorphins into the brain.

In addition, the brain may also release dopamine, a chemical that acts to remind us that an experience was rewarding so that we’ll do it again. So the release of dopamine triggered by drug use works to reinforce the habit of use, leading to addiction.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

When someone has a substance use disorder along with a mental health condition, this is referred to as a dual diagnosis, aka co-occurring disorders. According to National Institute of Mental Health, it’s usually best to treat both disorders concurrently, as lack of treatment for one could compromise the treatment progress for the other.2

A rehab facility that provides co-occurring disorder treatment is ideal for survivors of childhood trauma. This type of treatment program will address the person’s trauma and mental health conditions while also providing a safe environment for detox and treatment.

American Addiction Centers offers a wide range of treatment programs that include trauma-based therapy (for survivors of childhood trauma as well as Veterans, first responders, and more) and co-occurring disorder programs. Scattered across the country, the following rehab facilities offer evidence-based treatments led by certified clinicians.

Contact AAC at to learn more about treatment for you and/or a loved one. Ready to lend a caring ear, our admissions navigators can answer your questions about treatment, payment options, and more.


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