Childhood Trauma and Alcohol Addiction

Research has shown that childhood trauma may increase the risk of alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD).1 This page will explore the link between childhood trauma and alcohol addiction and help you understand how to find help.

Are Childhood Trauma & Alcohol Use Linked?

Experiencing trauma is an enormous burden for anyone to shoulder, particularly for children, whose developing brains are highly sensitive to adverse experiences.2

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as a circumstance or event that results in harm. The harm may be emotional, physical, and/or life-threatening.3 The circumstance or event results in lasting adverse effects on a person’s:3

  • Emotional health.
  • Mental health.
  • Physical health.
  • Social well-being.
  • Spiritual well-being.

Research suggests trauma may be at its most harmful when it occurs early, for example during infancy or childhood.2

The impact of trauma can persist for long after the trauma has ended and may increase the risk of long-term cognitive deficits, as well as physical and mental health problems (including substance use disorder, or SUD), and risk-taking behaviors.3,4

While childhood trauma is a risk factor for SUDs, alcohol addiction or other issues relating to substance use are not inevitable for all who suffer trauma in childhood.4 The effects of trauma can be offset by protective factors such as having a strong support system, high levels of parental engagement, or doing well in school.3,5

Alcohol & Childhood Trauma Research Findings

Several studies have examined the link between childhood trauma and problem drinking. While there isn’t a clear causal relationship between alcohol use disorder (AUD) and childhood trauma, studies do indicate that trauma may play a role in the development of AUD in some people.3,6

One study examined the effects of in college students. The study found that students who had more ACEs experienced higher levels of depressive symptoms, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, marijuana use, cigarette use, and alcohol use.7

Another study examined the impact of a history of childhood neglect on stress, affect, and desire to drink, in moderate to heavy everyday alcohol users without an AUD diagnosis.8 The results found that people with histories of greater childhood physical neglect demonstrated higher stress and worsened mood on a daily basis.

This same group of people also experienced less of an improvement of these symptoms during or after alcohol use when compared to those who suffered less severe childhood physical neglect.8

A separate study found that even exposure to one single ACE, by both females and males, was associated with a greater chance of proceeding to more severe alcohol involvement (as measured by AUD criteria met).9

Furthermore, the association between ACEs and the development of more severe alcohol problems was cumulative, with more ACEs relating to more harm.9

Additional studies found:9

  • Various ACEs were meaningfully associated with drinking at an early age (14 years old or younger), which can increase a person’s risk of developing AUD.
  • A cumulative relationship between the number of ACEs and the risk factor for alcohol-related problems. As the number of types of ACEs increases, so too do the odds of developing problems related to alcohol.
  • Not only do ACEs impact the development of alcohol-related problems, but they also impact the persistence of such problems.

Childhood Trauma, Alcohol Use Disorder, and Co-Occurring Disorders

In addition to the association between childhood trauma and the development of alcohol misuse and addiction, there is also an association between childhood trauma and co-occurring disorders.10

Co-occurring disorders means a person has one or more mental health disorders as well as one or more substance use disorders.10

Severe trauma during childhood can cause long-term changes in a child’s biological systems, including their developing central nervous system. Such changes can increase the risk of co-occurring disorders like PTSD and AUD.11

Self-medicating with alcohol or other substances is also a risk for those who’ve lived through trauma and/or struggle with untreated mental health disorders.1,12

Those with a trauma history may use alcohol in an attempt to manage the difficult emotions associated with the trauma or the symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other mental health disorders.1

While at first, substance use may seem to temporarily relieve some of these symptoms, it can worsen other symptoms and cause long-term harm.12

Many people with histories of trauma have multiple co-occurring disorders.12 For example, people with PTSD and alcohol (or drug) misuse problems often also have:12

  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Mood disorders like depression.
  • ADHD or other disruptive behavior disorders.
  • Polysubstance use disorders.

Co-Occurring Disorders and Childhood Abuse

Studies have shown that all types of childhood traumas, including child abuse, are associated with an increased risk of mental health disorders and substance use disorders.4,9

Types of child abuse include:

  • Emotional abuse: Any type of injury that affects the emotional stability or psychological capacity of a child. As a result, this type of abuse can cause significant or noticeable changes in the child’s cognition, behavior, or emotional response. Symptoms may include social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, or aggression.13
  • Physical abuse: Any type of intentional physical injury to a child, which can include hitting, kicking, biting, burning, or acts similar in nature.13
  • Sexual abuse: Sexual acts perpetrated against a child. These acts may occur between an adult and child or between children and may include behaviors that don’t involve direct touch, e.g., exposing a child to adult material.14
  • Neglect: A parent or other caregiver does not provide the child with basic needs, such as food, shelter, medical care, or supervision. As a result, the child’s safety or well-being is at risk.13

In particular, research has shown that childhood abuse is associated with an increased risk of:15

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • ADHD.
  • Conduct disorder.
  • Psychosis.
  • Non-suicidal self-injury.
  • Suicidality.
  • Substance use disorders.

Treating Trauma and Alcohol Use Disorder

Effective treatment that addresses co-occurring disorders is available to help people who are struggling with alcohol use disorder and who have a history of trauma and/or mental health disorders such as PTSD or depression.

Co-occurring disorder treatment—known as integrated treatment—refers to care that addresses the full array of a person’s needs and doesn’t focus on substance use to the exclusion of everything else. This means the patient is treated for both their alcohol addiction and their anxiety, for example.16,17

Addiction treatment therapies that may be used for trauma and alcohol addiction can include:

  • Pharmacotherapy, or medication. This may be used to treat both the symptoms of the SUD as well as trauma.10
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people make changes to the thoughts and behaviors that are associated with their trauma and alcohol use.18
  • Trauma-informed therapy, such as Seeking Safety.10,18
  • Motivational interviewing (MI), which can help increase a person’s motivation to make positive life changes.10
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which may be used to treat emotional dysregulation, decrease self-harming behaviors, and increase a person’s coping skills.19
  • Contingency management, which provides positive reinforcement when people achieve target goals.18

Alcohol Addiction Treatment in Orange County

If you’re struggling with the effects of childhood trauma and alcohol use disorder, we are here to help. At Laguna Treatment—an Orange County rehab—we offer different levels of rehab. Our integrated treatment plans are customized and designed for each person’s individual needs.

When you’re ready to reach out, please call us at . Our knowledgeable and compassionate admissions navigators are available 24/7 to discuss your rehab options or check your insurance coverage for addiction treatment.

By calling now, you can learn more about the rehab admissions process, using insurance to pay for rehab, and other rehab payment options.

You can also quickly and easily .

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We are here to help you learn how to live without reaching for the next drink. Laguna Treatment Center is located in Orange County within easy reach of the entire Los Angeles metro. We are the premier chemical dependency recovery hospital in the OC. We offer safe medical detox, mental health support, and wellness programs.