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Trauma and Alcohol Addiction

childhood trauma may cause alcoholism as an adult

When individuals experience alcohol addiction they, as well as their loved ones, may question if childhood trauma contributed to their current unhealthy and unsafe relationship with alcohol.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), there is a robust connection between childhood trauma and the development of alcohol dependence or addiction later in life. Childhood trauma can include various events, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, or the incarceration of a parent.

NIAAA notes that there is inadequate data to support an absolute causal connection between childhood trauma and later alcohol dependence. However, many studies suggest that the trauma often precedes the alcohol abuse. One theory postulates that the trauma can cause symptoms to emerge, such as anxiety, and the now older victim drinks alcohol to cope with the symptom. In fact, research has found that childhood trauma can impact a child’s neurobiological development and subsequently predispose the child to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse later in life. In this way, alcohol abuse can be seen as a response to deficits in the functioning of the brain and not solely as a matter of personal choice.

Sexual Abuse and Research Findings

One study of females and males in treatment for substance abuse found that 62 percent reported experiencing physical abuse or sexual abuse in childhood. This finding is alarming and serves to reaffirm the connection between childhood abuse and later alcohol dependence. The public’s awareness of the severity of the trauma sexual abuse in childhood causes has led to extensive research in this area as it relates to alcohol abuse. Take for example one study that involved 1,411 adult female twins who reported experiencing sexual abuse in childhood. The researchers sought to determine how strongly connected this experience was to the development of psychiatric disorders and/or alcohol or drug abuse later in life. The study concluded that sexual abuse in childhood was more likely to have predisposed the female participants to develop alcohol or other drug abuse than to develop psychiatric disorders.

Further, the experience of sexual abuse can more deeply entrench a person’s dependence on alcohol. According to one study, the alcohol-dependent participants who had experienced sexual abuse in childhood, compared to those who did not, were more likely to relapse (87.5 percent versus 63.3 percent) and to do so in a shorter span of time (at the 60-day mark of abstinence compared to 115 days). Still other research of female twins found that those who had experienced trauma (sexual and non-sexual) and then developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were twice as likely to develop alcohol dependence compared to those who did not have PTSD.

Additional Research Findings on Childhood Trauma

A study of 196 males and females in treatment, published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and discussed in Health Day, provides wide-spanning insights into the connection between trauma, mental health, and alcohol dependence and addiction. Some highlights among the findings include:

  • As a group, individuals who seek rehab services for an alcohol use disorder report higher rates of childhood physical or sexual abuse compared to the general population. Per one survey, 8.4 percent of the general population reported physical abuse and 6 percent reported sexual abuse.
  • Certain types of childhood abuse have a stronger association with certain types of mental health disorders. Sexual abuse related more closely to anxiety disorder and alcohol use disorder compared to emotional abuse, which was more closely associated with depression and alcohol use disorder.
  • People who were currently experiencing an alcohol use disorder and had experienced physical abuse in childhood were more likely to have attempted suicide.
  • Those with an alcohol use disorder who had experienced more than one form of abuse in childhood faced an increased risk of developing a mental health disorder or attempting suicide.

Controlling for differences in gender, one study found that 24 percent of males in treatment reported experiencing physical abuse in childhood compared to 33 percent of females. But one study showed a sharper divide between genders when it came to reports of sexual abuse in childhood; 12 percent of males reported sexual abuse compared to 49 percent of females. Regarding co-occurrence of abuse, 5 percent of males reported sexual and physical abuse compared to 23 percent of females.

From a treatment standpoint, the prevalence of child abuse among males and females in recovery for an alcohol use disorder requires targeted services to address these traumas.

Sexual Assault in Adulthood

One of the most traumatic experiences a person can endure in adulthood, as well as in childhood, is a sexual assault. Due to the devastating impact of a sexual assault, such as rape, some studies have focused on the impact of such an experience on the victim’s mental health. Some of this research may be heavily skewed to reflect the female experience of sexual assault, but males are also victims and may be especially vulnerable because they may underreport this crime.

The foregoing discussion demonstrates that trauma can lead a person to abuse alcohol or increase the risk of a mental health disorder, which in turn leads to alcohol abuse. According to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, females who have been raped are especially vulnerable to experiencing mental health disorders and/or substance abuse. Consider the following statistics:

  • A survey revealed that 31 percent of females who had been raped developed PTSD at some point in their lifetime.
  • In the general population, 10 percent of females had experienced an episode of major depression compared to 30 percent of females who had suffered a rape.
  • Compared to females who had not been victims of rape, females who had experience a rape were 4.1 times more like to have considered committing suicide.
  • Females who have suffered a rape are 13.4 times more likely than non-victimized women to have experienced two or more severe alcohol problems (20.1 percent versus 1.5 percent).
  • Females who have experienced a rape are 26 times more likely, compared to non-victims, to experience two or more severe drug abuse problems (7.8 percent versus 0.3 percent).

Further, a female or male who has experienced a rape not only faced the trauma of that experience but also the painful aftermath. For instance, one survey found that a reported 69 percent of rape victims were concerned that they would be blamed for the rape.  In addition, some survivors of rape may not have, or perceive they have, adequate support from friends and loved ones to cope with the experience.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, the following are some potential reasons why rape survivors turn to alcohol to cope:

  • In an attempt to self-medicate and feel better
  • As a form of escapism
  • Out of fear that friends and family can’t understand
  • To process confusion over the experience
  • Because they lack a solid support system

Another layer of complexity involves rapes and other sexual and nonsexual assaults that have not been reported. A person may rely on alcohol, and develop an abuse pattern, in an attempt to employ self-help. However, individuals do not typically have the skills to self-manage such a trauma. A support network is most advisable, especially one composed of mental health and addiction treatment professionals as well as family and friends. A mental health services center or alcohol rehab center can provide a person who has survived childhood and/or adult trauma with a safe and professional space in which to begin the recovery process.