The Connection Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Addiction

Characteristics of adult children of alcoholics - Centres for Health and Healing

Trauma during our early years can forever shape our ideas, beliefs, and perceptions about ourselves and the world, which many of us carry into adulthood.

Let’s think about the developmental disruption that psychological trauma can cause alone. By doing so, we may get a clearer picture of how early traumatic experiences influence our growth (mental and physical) and everything in between.

In Canada alone, it has been estimated that around 8% of Canadians who experience a traumatic event develop post-traumatic stress disorder (Canadian Psychological Association).

Moreover, the estimated lifetime prevalence rate of PTSD among Canadians is about 9%; these statistics significantly differ depending on the individual and type of event (Canadian Psychological Association).

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma

Adverse childhood experiences, sometimes called ACEs, are traumatic experiences or events that occur in an individual’s formative years.

According to researcher Wendy Wisner, “adverse childhood experiences are traumatic events that take place before the age of 18 that can have a lasting impact on a person’s mental health, physical health, and overall well-being” (What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?, Verywell mind, Wendy Wisner, February 24, 2022).

Trauma’s impact on our physical and mental health

CFHH Addictions Canada Alcohol

Years of study and research have gone into understanding the various effects of emotional trauma on humans.

What role childhood trauma and early adversity have on our physical and mental well-being and the different health outcomes are some critical areas of exploration.

Studies have shown that the most prevalent physical health conditions linked to adverse childhood experiences are:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease

The same study illustrated the mental health conditions associated with early psychological trauma, they include:

Adverse childhood experiences and addiction 

People use substances for different reasons; some do it for social purposes, enjoyment, or to relax after a long day. However, many people abuse alcohol or drugs to cope with pain, stress, or other issues.

Abusing substances for any reason can harm our health and put us at risk of developing an addiction or substance use disorder.

However, those who use substances to cope with trauma or stress are more likely to develop a substance addiction.

Problems arise when a person’s substance use causes harm to themselves, their family, friends, or the community.

Addiction rates in Canada

Substance misuse is a prevalent problem in Canada, particularly in some populations and provinces.

The research shows that a shocking one in five Canadians aged fifteen years and older experience a substance use disorder at some stage.

Alcohol misuse in Canada

woman drinking alcohol alone in the kitchen

The literature shows that substance abuse is rife within many Canadian communities. However, it has been reported that alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in the country.

Studies show that in 2015 around 3.3 million Canadian citizens consumed enough alcohol to be at immediate risk of injury.

Additionally, around 4.3 million drank enough alcohol to risk liver damage and other long-term health issues (Strengthening Canada’s Approach to Substance Use Issues, Government of Canada).

Cannabis misuse in Canada

Another commonly abused substance in Canada is cannabis.

The cohorts that abuse the drug most are 15-19 year-olds (21%) and young adults aged 20-24 (30%), the older population (25 and older) make up about 10% of the Canadian people who abuse cannabis regularly (Strengthening Canada’s Approach to Substance Use Issues, Government of Canada).

Trauma: the root cause of addiction

It’s widely understood within the medical and mental health community that trauma is the leading cause of substance addiction, especially adverse events that take place in one’s childhood.

Imagine how a young child conceptualises traumatic experiences in their home environment, and it’s easy to see how marginally different it is from how an adult processes similar events.

How trauma presents

The developing brain is profoundly vulnerable to trauma or intense stress.

A deeply disturbing or shocking experience can place a child in a vulnerable position where their nervous system becomes dysregulated.

The term “wired for stress” is significant in cases of childhood trauma. 

Traumatic experiences in a person’s formative years can have detrimental effects and outcomes where the child-turned-adult is continually activated, even when there is no threat or harm.

This might be why a person experiences uncontrollable anxiety in non-threatening situations or why an individual develops irrational fears or phobias, is avoidant or is isolated from their peers because they feel different from everyone else.

Addiction plays an integral role in all this – a person with unresolved traumas is likely to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to numb painful memories or emotions that otherwise feel too raw and overwhelming.

Types of traumatic events

sad-child-with-trauma-sitting-alone-with-doll

Various childhood experiences and events can trigger trauma – they include:

  • Childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment
  • Domestic violence (intimate partner violence) 
  • Having an incarcerated family member
  • Parental divorce
  • Substance abuse in the home – for instance, your mother or father may have abused alcohol around you
  • Experiencing a severe childhood illness (or witnessing a loved one with a terminal illness)

Other factors that play a role in addiction

Aside from adverse childhood experiences, other social determinants play a role in substance addiction; these include social, economic, and environmental factors such as:

  • Housing stability
  • Employment status 
  • Education and literacy
  • Lifestyle 
  • Gender
  • Access to health services
  • Coping skills and social support
  • Childhood experiences
  • Income status 

Adverse childhood experiences study

A 2014 study showed ACEs strongly correlated with adverse health, behavioural, and social outcomes.

The study compared those with no ACEs to those with ACEs and found that people with four or more adverse childhood experiences were more likely to smoke tobacco, drink heavily, and be incarcerated for criminal activity.

Additionally, the study showed that those with four or more ACEs had a greater risk of poor employment and educational outcomes, low life satisfaction (and well-being) and were more likely to develop chronic health conditions.

The literature highlights how childhood trauma and early adverse experiences contribute to poor life trajectories and health and social outcomes.

Those with higher ACE scores are more prone to commit a crime, have unplanned pregnancies, and suffer poor employment.

The researchers noted a “cyclic effect” where those with higher ACE scores are more likely to expose their own children to ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences, retrospective study to determine their impact on adult health behaviours and health outcomes in a UK population, Mark.A. Bellis, Helen Lowey, Nicola Leckenby, Karen Hughes, Dominic Harrison; Journal of Public Health, volume 36, Issue 1, March 2014).

Early adversity

Early adversity significantly impacts the brain, shaping how we see ourselves and the world. These experiences and the many systems involved can cause problems with emotional regulation and self-control and even influence what we crave and desire.

Childhood trauma alters the areas in our brain involved in addiction -this exposure puts people at much higher risk of addictive behaviours, including drug and alcohol addiction.

A dysregulated nervous system may motivate someone with adverse childhood experiences to seek relief from their symptoms in destructive ways.

These “coping mechanisms,” often substance-related, can further damage the various pathways disturbed by the original trauma.

Finding recovery

father and son having a therapy session

Fortunately, there are many treatments available to those with substance use disorders.

Many rehabilitation centres offer patients dual-diagnosis treatment, which helps treat the root cause of substance abuse and addiction.

Standard therapeutic approaches include targeting PTSD symptoms – therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy can help address a person’s maladaptive thoughts and behaviours.

Another pioneering trauma treatment is eye movement desensitisation reprocessing therapy (EMDR); during sessions, a therapist will discuss your trauma and guide you through a series of eye movements (or tapping techniques).

EMDR’s goal is to desensitise you to the traumatic memories that may have caused you much distress in the past – over time; these memories will become less overwhelming and more manageable.

How Centres for Health and Healing can help 

We treat and diagnose various mental health conditions and substance use disorders at Centres for Health and Healing.

It’s widely known that a person’s environment plays a crucial role in recovery. 

Thus we have created a safe space at our luxury treatment centre in Ontario, Canada, where patients can peacefully recover from experiences that may have isolated them or caused much distress in the past.

Our trauma-informed specialists deliver exceptional recovery programs to clients from all backgrounds and experiences.

Contact our friendly team today. 

Additional resources

  1. Adverse childhood experiences: retrospective study to determine their impact on adult health behaviours and health outcomes in a UK population, Mark.A. Bellis, Helen Lowey, Nicola Leckenby, Karen Hughes, Dominic Harrison; Journal of Public Health, volume 36, Issue 1, March 2014).
  2. Strengthening Canada’s Approach to Substance Use Issues, Government of Canada.
  3. What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?, Verywell Mind, Wendy Wisner, February 24, 2022
Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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