Understanding How Childhood Trauma Affects Substance Abuse
Childhood trauma, also called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, make a major impact on a child’s future. Many young people do not realize how their negative childhood experiences affect them until life starts going wrong. If you or your loved one struggle with mental health, trauma and substance abuse problems, learning about ACEs and getting the right treatment helps.
Is Trauma at the Root of My Substance Abuse Problem?
Many people with substance abuse problems look back on their childhood with regret. Some say things like, “If only I had a better childhood,” or, “I wish I could forget the abuse I suffered,” and even, “I will never be good enough.” Sadly, a large percentage of people with ACEs start using alcohol or drugs to numb their trauma. They do not do so purposefully, but in self-medication and a simple desire to feel better.
When you or your loved one enter substance abuse treatment, likelihood is high for receiving a dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis disorders include two or more combined conditions, such as those of mental health problems and substance abuse. Past trauma, depression, anxiety and a wide range of mental conditions lead to drug and alcohol misuse. Many of these conditions go hand-in-hand and lead to addiction.
It’s important to learn more about trauma and its effects, as these relate to substance abuse and dual diagnosis disorders. By doing so, you can open doors to a brighter future for yourself or the person you love.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?
According to the CDC, ACEs are traumatic events occurring in childhood, from birth to age 17. Some examples of ACEs include:
- Experiencing physical violence or abuse
- Witnessing violence
- Family suicide attempts or occurrences
- Experiencing sexual, verbal or emotional abuse
- Substance abuse in the home
- Mental health problems
- Parental separation, instability or imprisonment
ACEs like these link to later problems in life, such as chronic health issues, mental health problems, and substance abuse. People who suffer trauma in childhood struggle to succeed in education and work opportunities. More than two in three adults report experiencing one more forms of ACEs. Each year, reported depression cases could drop by 21 million and heart disease by 1.9 million simply through the prevention or treatment of ACEs.
Impact of Trauma Experienced in Childhood
ACEs can affect virtually every area of adult life among those who suffered these experiences in childhood. Adults with ACEs experience more health problems, fewer opportunities and a low sense of well-being. They also have a higher risk for substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections, injuries, pregnancy problems, teen pregnancy, sex trafficking involvement, and chronic disease. Among the chronic health problems occurring more often in people with traumatic childhoods are cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and suicide attempts.
Other problems of ACEs include a higher risk for living in racially segregated neighborhoods, suffering a lack of resources, frequent moving, and food insecurity. All of these issues lead to prolonged stress that affects brain development, attention, learning, stress response, and decision-making. Children with these backgrounds struggle to form healthy relationships, consistent work history, financial security, and ongoing happiness.
What is an ACEs Test?
An ACEs test asks you specific questions about your childhood. From your answers, you receive a tallied score. The more negative your background and traumatic experiences in childhood, the higher your score. Along with a higher score comes a greater risk for adulthood behavioral and health problems.
Although the ACEs test does not take environmental factors, genetics, nutrition or other risks into consideration, your results provide a good idea of your risk for problems. If you abuse substances or suffer other mental or behavioral health problems, an ACEs score can also point to root causes for these conditions. By knowing your root causes, you can get the treatment you need for a higher chance of lifelong recovery.
Having a high ACE score does not seal your fate for problems in adulthood. Instead, it forms an idea of your risk. People process trauma differently. Exposure to positive influences and experiences often mitigates negative ones. The ACEs test does not take these positive events into consideration.
What Questions does an ACEs Test Ask?
An ACEs test asks multiple questions. For every “yes” answer to these questions, you add one point to your score. For a “no” answer, you add zero. At the end of your test, your tallied score tells the therapist providing the test your level of risk for problems associated with trauma in childhood. It also helps them develop an individualized treatment plan with therapies proven to help people overcome the effects of trauma.
Some of the questions on the ACEs test include:
1. A parent or other adult in your home frequently swearing at you, calling you names, acting in a way that frightened you or humiliating you?
2. A parent or other adult in your home frequently pushing, grabbing, slapping or throwing something at you or hitting you so hard that you suffered physical marks?
3. Someone older than you ever touching or fondling you, or having you touch them in a sexual manner?
4. Frequently feeling no one in your home loved you, supported you, saw you as special or looked out for you?
5. Frequently not having enough food, clean clothes, protection or care?
Treatment for Trauma and Substance Abuse
If you or your child suffered trauma in childhood, trauma-informed therapy provides the coping skills needed for healing from that difficult past. This dual diagnosis treatment typically includes meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and art. An individual treatment plan also typically includes other types of individual and group therapies, such as CBT, DBT or EMDR. All of this treatment helps create a healthier future beyond a dual diagnosis disorder, other mental health conditions and substance abuse.
Ethos Structured Sober Living in West Los Angeles provides an environment of accountability, camaraderie and character development for young males seeking to enjoy greater health and happiness in long-term sobriety. This stable and supportive environment provides complete accommodations and referrals to the services you need. Here, you build long-term recovery from your childhood trauma and substance abuse. Contact us today to learn more about how your trauma charted the course you follow today, as well as how you can form a better path for the rest of your life.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.