The link between childhood trauma and addiction

According to several studies, women who have grown up in dysfunctional environments and who, as a consequence, have experienced a lot of traumatic events when they were children, are more likely to get addicted to food, alcohol, tobacco as well as illegal drugs like heroine, cocaine or meth than women who grew up under better circumstances.

What is addiction?

When you have an addiction, you repeatedly use a specific substance and, after a while, experience the strong desire to take it again and again.

You have difficulties to control the amount and frequency of its use and continue using it, despite negative consequences for your health and performance in everyday life.

You give higher priority to the substance than to other activities and duties and you even suffer from withdrawal symptoms, if, for some reason, you don’t get your regular dosage.

Why are traumatised females more likely to get addicted?

When we look at any kind of dysfunction or illness, we need to consider biological, psychological and social reasons why it has developed.

1. Biological reasons for addiction after childhood trauma:.

Scientists have found out that traumatic events interfere with normal brain development.

Children who grew up with a lot of stress have a defective dopamine reward system in their brains. They experience less happiness during the day than normally developed children because their brains release less dopamine.

Due to the lack of dopamine, they are trying to medicate themselves with substances like alcohol or tobacco, which are known to increase dopamine release in the brain. This way they are able to feel more comfort and happiness.

Another reason is genetic. The DNA of some women makes them prone to get addicted to food, alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs.

When you look at dysfunctional families, you will often find parents who suffer from mental illness or who abuse substances. Usually, you can find these kinds of problems also in the generation of the grandparents as well as that of the great-grandparents.

An explanation for this multigenerational incidence of dysfunction can be a defective gene pool that makes members of such families more vulnerable to addicted behaviour.

2. Psychological reasons for addiction after childhood trauma:

As already stated above, families in which childhood trauma occurs, have a tendency to abuse substances.

Children who grew up in households where they’ve learned that a way to deal with stress or anxiety is to drink a can of beer are likely to replicate this behaviour in their adulthood.

Women who have experienced childhood trauma have to deal with feelings of sadness, anger, resentment, bitterness as well as flashbacks of the abuse or neglect.

They try to get rid of these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings through turning to food, alcohol or drugs.

3. Social reasons for addiction after childhood trauma:

Women who have experienced severe childhood trauma usually come from broken homes where they are alienated from their parents and siblings.

Their parents are often divorced and some family members might even spend time in prison.

Women from such families don’t have the supportive background that their peers from healthier families can rely on and therefore they often feel isolated.

This can lead to addictive behaviour in order to kill boredom and the pain of loneliness.

Some survivors of childhood trauma use addiction in order to rebel against the norms of the society that has failed them through turning a blind eye to their abuse.

Or they need the relaxing effects of these substances to conquer a lack of self-esteem and social inhibitions in order to be able to socialize and form friendships with their peers.

For female teens who have lived through a traumatic childhood, friends often replace their disrupted family. They become members of cliques where substance abuse is being promoted in order to create a sense of belonging and group solidarity.

Since they don’t want to lose their friends, they often succumb to peer pressure. This way they form harmful habits that continue well into their adulthood.

The take-home message

#1 Since women who had a traumatic childhood experience less happiness in their day to day lives due to lack of natural dopamine release, it’s necessary for them to shield themselves consistently from unneccessary negativity and to incorporate as many positive moments into their lives as possible.

#2 Stress release is a major reason for substance abuse, therefore it’s important for those concerned, to find wholesome ways to relax, for example through physical activity or guided meditation.

#3 The need for friendship and connection is also at the forefront of addictive behaviour. If you are a female survivor of a rough childhood who feels isolated and disconnected from others, it’s necessary for you to look for ways to form healthy friendships and community, for example through membership in self-help and special interest groups.

Further sources:

Impacts of adverse childhood experiences on health, mental health, and substance use in early adulthood: A cohort study of an urban, minority sample in the U.S.

Question: Are you struggling with addiction as a result of a problematic childhood? Please tell me in the comments!

Until next time,

[Photo by Jez Timms on]