May 22, 2023

Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Childhood trauma and addiction are closely linked, with early life adversities often paving the way for substance abuse and behavioral addictions in later years.

childhood trauma and addiction

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Susana Spiegel

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Last Update on June 6, 2023

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Childhood trauma and addiction are closely linked, with early life adversities often paving the way for substance abuse and behavioral addictions in later years.

This article unravels the complex relationship between these two prevalent issues, seeking to enhance understanding and promote effective treatment strategies.

Understanding Childhood Trauma

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma refers to deeply distressing or disturbing experiences during the early developmental stages.

They can be emotionally and physically overwhelming, or harmful.

It includes a wide range of adverse events, including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, domestic violence, loss of a loved one, or witnessing traumatic incidents.

Physically, these experiences can disrupt normal brain development and heighten stress response, resulting in a multitude of health issues.

The effects of childhood trauma can extend into adulthood, influencing mental health, interpersonal relationships, and even increasing the risk of self harm, substance abuse and addiction.

Recognizing the impact of childhood trauma is crucial for providing appropriate support and care to promote healing and resilience.

Different Types of Childhood Trauma

Type of Trauma Description
Physical Abuse Physical abuse involves intentional acts that cause physical harm to a child. This could include hitting, shaking, or burning.
Emotional Abuse Emotional abuse refers to behaviors that harm a child’s self-worth or emotional well-being, such as name-calling, shaming, rejection, or withholding love.
Sexual Abuse Sexual abuse involves adults using children for sexual purposes, which can include exhibitionism, fondling, intercourse, or exploitation through pornography or prostitution.
Neglect Neglect involves failure to meet a child’s basic needs, including food, housing, clothing, education, medical care, or emotional support.

Consequences of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma, unfortunately, is a pervasive issue with extensive and often enduring consequences that can permeate every facet of an individual’s life. 

The types of trauma, ranging from physical and emotional abuse to sexual abuse and neglect, can lead to a myriad of adverse outcomes in psychological, social, and physical domains. 

The impacts are often long-term, with effects that linger far into adulthood, affecting relationships, mental health, and overall quality of life. 

To grasp the true depth of the issue, it’s crucial to understand the different types of consequences that childhood trauma can lead to.

Short Term Psychological and Physiological Effects of Trauma

In the short term, childhood trauma can have both psychological and physiological effects.

Psychologically, children may experience intense fear, confusion, sadness, or anger.

They may have difficulty concentrating, show changes in academic performance, or engage in regressive behaviors such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking.

Recurrent, distressing memories of the traumatic event may surface, often leading to sleep disturbances like nightmares.

Physiologically, the body’s stress response is activated, which can result in symptoms like a racing heart, rapid breathing, or stomachaches.

Changes in appetite and are also common.

The child may appear unusually alert or anxious, a state known as hypervigilance, as their body remains on high alert for potential danger.

These short-term effects are natural reactions to stressful events.

Long-term effects of Trauma and how they can manifest in adulthood

Type of Trauma Short-Term Effects
Physical Abuse Short-term effects may include injuries like bruises, broken bones, burns, and in extreme cases, death. Victims might also exhibit behavioral changes, such as aggression or withdrawal.
Emotional Abuse Children may show immediate signs of distress, fear, or sadness. They may also develop anxiety, depression, or exhibit behavioral problems like defiance, aggression, or withdrawal from social interaction.
Sexual Abuse In the short-term, victims may experience physical harm, difficulty walking or sitting, and behavior changes. They might also show inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviors.
Neglect Short-term effects of neglect might include malnutrition, unsanitary living conditions, and unattended health issues. Children may also show poor performance in school and social withdrawal.
Long-Term Effect Description
Cognitive Issues Individuals may struggle with attention, memory, and problem-solving skills. They might also exhibit difficulties in learning and academic achievement.
PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) Survivors may experience intrusive memories of the trauma, avoidance of anything that reminds them of the trauma, and heightened reactions to stress.
Social Anxiety Individuals may develop an intense fear of social situations, fearing judgment, embarrassment, or humiliation in front of others.
Generalized Anxiety Those affected may show excessive, ongoing worry and tension, often without a specific cause. They may also feel restless and have difficulties with sleep and concentration.
Trust Issues Survivors might find it hard to trust others, impacting their ability to build and maintain relationships. This can stem from a fear of being hurt or exploited.
Low Self-Esteem Individuals may develop a low sense of self-worth, feeling inadequate or viewing themselves negatively. This can affect many areas of life, from relationships to career progress.
Low Self-Worth Survivors might constantly question their value and worth, leading to feelings of worthlessness and potentially contributing to depressive symptoms.
Addiction Individuals may turn to substance abuse or other addictive behaviors as a coping mechanism to numb the pain of their trauma, leading to a cycle of dependency and addiction.
The long-term effects of trauma, particularly when experienced in childhood, can manifest in a multitude of ways in adulthood. From a physical perspective, survivors of childhood trauma are at an increased risk for chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. This is often attributed to the prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system, also known as the “Fight-or-Flight” response. From a psychological standpoint, trauma can increase the likelihood of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma survivors may also struggle with issues related to self-esteem, body image, and self-worth1. These issues can impact interpersonal relationships, with survivors experiencing difficulties in forming healthy relationships due to fears of abandonment or betrayal. Cognitive effects may emerge, such as difficulties with attention, memory, and executive functioning. Behaviorally, individuals may engage in risky behaviors, and struggle with self-regulation and impulse control In addition, trauma can result in substance abuse and addiction, as individuals may use substances to cope with distressing emotions or memories related to their trauma. The effects of childhood trauma can permeate all facets of life, highlighting the importance of early intervention, and treatment.

Childhood Trauma and The Development of Addiction

What is the connection between childhood trauma and addiction?

The connection between childhood trauma and addiction is both complex and extensive.

Experiences of trauma in early life can disrupt normal brain development and functioning, which can increase susceptibility to substance use disorders.

One prominent theory explaining this link is the self-medication hypothesis2.

This theory suggests that individuals who have experienced trauma may turn to substances or addictive behaviors as a means to cope with or escape from the distressing emotions, memories, or physical sensations associated with their traumatic experiences.

In essence, substances or certain behaviors provide a temporary relief or distraction, despite their harmful consequences.

Over time, this pattern of self-medication can develop into an addiction, as the brain adapts to the presence of the substance and begins to crave it.

Thus, childhood trauma can lay the groundwork for patterns of behavior that significantly increase the risk of developing addiction in later life.

how trauma can lead to other addictive behaviors (risk-taking behavior, self harm, etc.)

Trauma can lead to many dangerous risk-taking behaviors.

Individuals may engage in reckless driving, unprotected sex, or criminal activities, as a form of acting out or as a misguided attempt at regaining control.

Moreover, trauma can result in self-harm or suicidal behaviors, as individuals struggle with intense feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or self-loathing.

These behaviors are often a cry for help and an expression of profound emotional pain.

It’s important to note that while these behaviors may provide temporary relief or distraction, they ultimately exacerbate distress and risk, highlighting the need for appropriate therapeutic intervention.

Risk-Taking Behavior Description
Reckless Driving Individuals may drive recklessly as an act of defiance or in a misguided attempt to regain control, putting themselves and others at risk.
Unprotected Sex Survivors might engage in risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex, potentially leading to sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies.
Criminal Activities Individuals may partake in illegal activities, possibly as a form of acting out or an attempt to exert control over their environment.
Self-Harm Those dealing with the aftermath of trauma may resort to self-harming behaviors as a way to cope with intense feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or self-loathing.
Suicidal Behaviors Extreme feelings of despair may lead individuals to contemplate or attempt suicide, representing one of the most serious consequences of untreated trauma.

Let us help you start your journey to recovery.

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Recovery and Moving Forward


Healing from childhood trauma and addiction is of highest importance for individuals seeking recovery and a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Childhood trauma leaves deep emotional wounds that can manifest in self-destructive behaviors, including addiction.

By addressing and healing these underlying traumas, individuals can break free from the cycle of addiction, regain control over their lives, and cultivate healthier coping mechanisms.

Healing from childhood trauma not only alleviates emotional pain but also allows individuals to rebuild their sense of self, enhance their relationships, and experience personal growth.

It is a transformative journey that empowers individuals to reclaim their lives, find inner strength, and create a brighter future filled with hope, resilience, and the possibility of lasting recovery.



Several effective treatments have emerged for addressing childhood trauma and supporting healing.

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) has been extensively studied and proven effective.

It combines cognitive restructuring, exposure therapy, and skill-building techniques to help individuals process traumatic experiences and develop coping strategies.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy utilizes bilateral stimulation to facilitate reprocessing traumatic memories, reducing their emotional impact3.

Play therapy is particularly effective for children, allowing them to express and work through their emotions in a safe environment.

Mindfulness-based interventions and body-centered approaches, like yoga, can help regulate emotions and promote relaxation.



Rehabilitation centers offer significant benefits for individuals struggling with both childhood trauma and addiction.

These specialized facilities provide a safe and structured environment where individuals can receive targeted therapy and support.

Rehab centers offer a range of evidence-based treatments, such as trauma-focused therapies, that help individuals address childhood trauma’s underlying wounds while tackling addiction.

The multidisciplinary approach combines individual and group therapy, counseling, education, and skill-building activities to foster healing and recovery.

By providing a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to address trauma and addiction, treatment centers help individuals gain insight into the connections between their past experiences and addictive behaviors.

Moreover, these facilities offer a supportive community of peers and professionals who understand and validate their struggles, fostering a sense of belonging and empowerment.

With the guidance and resources provided by treatment facilities, individuals can learn healthier coping strategies, build resilience, and pave the way for a brighter, addiction-free future.



If you are struggling with childhood trauma and/or addiction, please contact one of our many staff members for a free and confidential assessment. Let’s break the cycle together!

Cornerstone Healing Center is a trauma-focused drug rehab center in Scottsdale, Arizona. Let us help you find and heal the roots of your addiction. Please get in touch with our admissions specialists to discuss your treatment options today! 



[1] What Is Child Trauma>Complex Trauma>Effects

[2] The self-medication hypothesis of substance use disorders: a reconsideration and recent applications

[3] Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

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Author & Reviewers

susana spiegel recovery writer and SEO expert

Susana is a recovery writer and advocate with over 8 years in addiction recovery. She is passionate about sharing accurate and helpful information about mental health, addiction, and recovery. She holds a Bachelor’s in Christian Studies from Grand Canyon University and has over 7 years of working in the addiction field. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges; he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues.

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