According to a 2012 study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 55% of patients treated at inpatient facilities for alcohol dependence had experienced some form of childhood trauma. While nearly 25% of men and 33% of women suffered from physical abuse as children, nearly 50% of women and 12% of men were sexually abused. Another survey showed that more than 70% of adolescents suffering from alcohol dependency admitted to having traumatic pasts and histories. In fact, teens that were sexually and physically abused are three times as likely to suffer from substance use disorders.
That’s why understanding trauma and how it relates to alcohol abuse and dependency is a key component of our treatment program and recovery process here at Solution Based Treatment and Detox.
Understanding the Basics of Trauma
While most people think of physical abuse when they hear the word “trauma,” the clinical definition focuses less on what causes trauma and more on the nature of one’s reaction. According to the Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, trauma is a psychological and emotional response to an event or experience that is extremely distressing and disturbing. Complex trauma often arises from repeated experiences and events. While physical and sexual abuse can certainly lead to trauma, natural disasters, bullying, accidents, war, witnessing violence and even giving birth can all induce trauma.
Other common causes of trauma can include:
- Domestic violence (both experiencing and witnessing)
- Death of a close family member, friend or pet
- Car accidents
- Abandonment and neglect
- School shootings and public violence
- Serious and chronic illness
- Physical and emotional neglect
- Growing up with parents suffering from substance abuse issues
Common Signs and Symptoms of Trauma
While everyone’s threshold for traumatic events varies, a common thread present in every form of trauma is the inability to move past the experience or event. Instead of moving forward with their lives, traumatized individuals find themselves constantly reliving the occurrence. Other signs of trauma include:
- Mood changes
- Anger and denial
- Insomnia and/or nightmares
- Irritable behavior
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Intense fear
- Change in appetite or refusal to eat
- Sudden silence and refusal to talk/communicate
- Physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea
- Struggling academically
Victims of trauma often find themselves developing coping mechanisms as a way to deal with the pain. This is particularly true for children as their communication skills and emotional intelligence are not yet fully developed.
How Children Cope with Trauma
With an estimated 39% of children ages 12 to 17 having witnessed violence, 33% of children having been emotionally bullied, and 26% of children having experienced some form of trauma before they turn 4 years old, it’s critical to understand how children cope with trauma.
After a traumatic event, a child’s brain is in a heightened state of stress. Because their brains are rapidly developing, the brain remains in this state and eventually recognizes this level of stress as a normal pattern, especially if the trauma happens repeatedly. This paradigm causes the cognitive, behavioral and emotional functioning of the child to shift. As a result, normal methods for handling and enduring stress are unintentionally replaced with abnormal ways of coping. Some examples of these abnormal methods of coping are:
- Believing the trauma is their fault
- Feeling and expressing frequent anger
- Relying on anxious feelings rather than logic
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains it this way: “When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems. However, if the stress response is extreme and long-lasting, and buffering relationships are unavailable to the child, the result can be damaged, weakened systems and brain architecture, with lifelong repercussions.”
Trauma and Brain Development
Although biology and genetics play a huge part in the brain’s development, so do the environments in which kids grow up. In fact, the brain responds, adapts and shapes itself as a result of such stimuli, a behavior known as plasticity. In other words, the growth and development of the brain and its final physical structure are directly impacted by one’s experiences, both positive and negative. The more trauma children experience, the more neurological imbalances and anomalies they can experience, as well.
Research in the article “Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development” notes that “specific effects of maltreatment [on brain development] may depend on such factors as the age of the child at the time of the maltreatment, whether the maltreatment was a one-time incident or chronic, the identity of the abuser (e.g. parent or other adult), whether the child had a dependable nurturing individual in his or her life, the type and severity of the maltreatment, the intervention, how long the maltreatment lasted, and other individual and environmental characteristics.”
The specific parts of the brain that are affected by traumatic experiences are:
- Hippocampus, which is involved in the formation of new memories, learning and emotions
- Corpus callosum, which assists in communication
- Cerebellum, which coordinates motor behavior and executive functioning
- Prefrontal cortex, which governs behavior, cognitive functioning and reasoning
- Cortisol levels, which affects how individuals deal with stress, learning and socialization
Trauma affects each of these parts of the brain, which can lead to the following behaviors:
- Increased internalization of feelings and symptoms
- Lower levels of executive functioning, reducing the ability to control impulses
- Difficulty with social interactions
- Hyperarousal which triggers an immediate emotional response to stress
- Persistent fear response, impeding the ability to differentiate between danger and safety
Despite developing during childhood, these abnormalities follow children into adolescence and adulthood, increasing their risk for alcohol dependency.
Childhood Trauma’s Impact on Adults
As children and adolescents affected by trauma continue to develop, their habits, coping mechanisms and behavioral struggles follow them into adulthood. This changes the course of their lives as adults and helps shape how they respond to life experiences and difficulties.
Often, childhood trauma affects adult experiences including:
- Social interactions (family, friends, relationships, professional environments)
- Mental health and logical reasoning (dealing with impulses, problems and issues)
- Emotional well-being (depression, anxiety, PTSD)
As a result of trauma, many adults turn to alcohol and other forms of substance abuse.
Putting It All Together
Simply put, childhood trauma affects both how the brain develops and how adults react to future stress and challenges.
As a result of both of these factors, adults who experienced childhood trauma are less likely to handle emotional stress through healthy behaviors, making it more likely they will seek out alcohol or other addictive substances as a coping mechanism.
“In other words,” psychologist Joseph Nowinski writes in Psychology Today, “the greater the childhood abuse or neglect, the more severe the adult drinking problem would be.” Studies have found that adults suffering from alcohol abuse frequently identify childhood emotional abuse as a driving factor in their addiction.
Minimizing the Damage
Although it is impossible to go back and prevent past trauma from occurring, family members, friends and communities can help adults minimize the effects of alcohol addiction by helping connect them to treatment and support.
Some of the best ways to do this are:
- Watch for signs of traumatic stress reactions (fear or anxiety)
- Provide early intervention if warning signs appear
- Ask questions and open up a dialogue (talk about what happened)
- Listen to their experiences
- Seek professional help from an addiction treatment provider
Remember that you and your loved ones are not alone. Our team at Solution Based Treatment & Detox is here to meet your needs. With trained professionals, years of experience and expertise, we are at your service. Give us a call today at (877) 309-4311 if you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse.