How Childhood Trauma Tethers Itself to Addiction

How Childhood Trauma Tethers Itself to Addiction

Published on August 11, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

First responders see and experience trauma every day. But what if the trauma that affects them most happened long before they joined the police academy or completed firefighter training? Without resolving our traumatic memories from childhood, first responders and other adults become susceptible to a host of other problems, including addiction.

The development of the brain plays an incredibly complex role in determining one’s relationship with alcohol and/or substance use. For those who experience trauma early in their cognitive development, the risk for eventual alcohol and/or substance use disorders becomes disproportionately high.

This interrelationship often complicates diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from childhood trauma, as well as alcohol and/or substance use disorders. If just one of these disorders is treated without consideration of the existence of the other, recovery from both disorders can be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma

When children experience adverse childhood experiences, key cognitive, social, and emotional growth can be impaired. Traumatic memories form in the mind like square pegs that are unable to be processed into the appropriate round holes of long-term memory. This leaves the experiences more or less floating in the psyche, where they pop up unexpectedly until therapy can effectively reprocess them.

Early traumatic events generally lead to the development of alcohol and/or substance use disorders through impediments of one’s behavioral development. Since those recovering from trauma suffer from delayed maturation, their relationship with alcohol and/or substances is subject to a higher risk of unhealthy use.

For the same reasons the mind struggles to make logical sense of jarring events, it also looks to use alcohol and/or substances as a means to escape reliving those same events. For first responders who continue to deal with trauma day in and day out in their professional lives, their need for this escape may be even greater.

However, as many in recovery can attest, using alcohol and/or substances does not solve anyone’s problems. It merely postpones them, allowing the root of the problem to rot from within.

Types of Trauma That Influence Substance Use Disorders

Unfortunately, the formation of the adolescent mind endures a fragile and vulnerable gauntlet. While many assume child abuse upon hearing the words “childhood trauma,” this trauma can take place in many forms. Emotional trauma — a subset of psychological trauma — interferes with one’s ability to connect with others empathetically, potentially leading to emotional exhaustion, detachment, and even dissociation.

The onset of this trauma can derive from neglect, the death of a parent and/or guardian, or witnessing domestic violence at an early age. Young people subjected to these events have a higher likelihood of relying on alcohol and/or substances in order to self-medicate. According to a 2010 study published in Biology Psychology Journal, exposure to childhood trauma does in fact play a role in risk-resilience for substance dependence.

In attempts to escape the painful memories or deeply-entrenched negative thoughts commonly expressed by trauma survivors, those coping with childhood trauma will turn to an outside source to either validate or suppress these psychological side effects.

For this reason, alcohol and/or substances fulfill the desire of temporarily forgetting traumatic memories — including the ones that continue to occur on the job as first responders. Taking the steps to reprocess these memories is the only way to establish long-term relief from the grips of trauma.

Childhood Trauma and Addiction

The mode of trauma thrives in psychological environments where the mind, for whatever reason, is unable to make sense of the trauma itself. For adults, the life experience they possess may enable them to distinguish unordinary occurrences from the ordinary — although this can be murky for first responders, whose “ordinary” does not seem ordinary to most.

Children who have no such frame of reference struggle to attain any feelings of closure or critical catharsis, as the traumatic events are lumped together with ordinary memories. The trauma is shelved more or less alongside healthy experiences, shifting the landscape of what a young person might perceive as “normal” from an early age.

For many who suffer trauma at a young age, the source of the trauma is synonymous with family. This further complicates how the developing mind comprehends traumatic events. Typically, the younger a child is when experiencing trauma, the more difficult it is to understand its impropriety, regardless of who may be responsible for causing it.

Trauma caused by a family member often results in complications identifying unhealthy relationships later in life. Individuals working through childhood trauma may also have difficulty realizing how a behavior leads to habit, making them more vulnerable to dependency on alcohol and/or substances.

Dual Disorders

Dealing with two co-occurring disorders requires as much self-reflection as it does vulnerability. Each disorder fuels the other, creating a feedback loop of emotional repression. If you or a loved one are dealing with either childhood trauma and/or addiction, the first step is committing to learn about the specific nature of these disorders. One must understand the resulting behavioral tendencies to get to the root of both trauma and addiction.

Lastly, the confluence of multiple disorders can make us feel helpless. With so many cognitive tendencies seemingly stacked against us, it can feel like an inescapable army of factors are weighing us down. However, with the help of trained professionals and support of group therapy, working through trauma and addiction is worth the adversity. The same grit and determination that first responders use on the front lines every day can help them win this battle, too.

Working through trauma while recovering from alcohol and/or substance use disorders takes time, patience, and commitment. Frequently, the early experiences of trauma stay with us through adult life, when they tend to manifest in unexpected ways. In situations where addiction is coupled with diagnosable co-occurring disorders, True Recovery recognizes that both need to be addressed for appropriate patient care. Post-traumatic stress disorder, panic/anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and depressive disorders are just a few of the conditions we treat in conjunction with a psychiatrist and an extensive clinical team. At True Recovery, we understand the unique needs of first responders. If you or your loved one are ready to begin living an alcohol and substance-free life, we are available to you 24/7. Call us now at (888) 743-0490