How the Trauma of Addiction Impacts You Throughout Each Stage of Life

 In Addiction, Mental Health

PTSD and addiction may seem like they exist in two different worlds, but there is an important connection between them. 

Many of us have experienced one or more tragic events or traumatic situations in our lives that mark us in one way or another, which can lead to PTSD. It is always challenging to cope with them, especially when these events occur in childhood. And regardless of when these experiences take place, we often feel their effects for years to come.

Traumatic Stress Disorders

Symptoms commonly resulting from these incidents can include anxiety, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings, drug abuse, feelings of being isolated, and difficulty even in completing basic daily tasks. This grouping of symptoms that arise are generally known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show symptoms for months even after the event itself. Others will deal with the symptoms of a traumatic experience for the rest of their life. 

However, not every traumatized person develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people develop symptoms, but they will go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder (ASD).

Stress-Related Disorders, in general, refer to a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that consists of a wide range of issues and disorders that occur as a result of exposure to traumatic experiences. This includes Adjustment Disorders, Acute Stress Disorders, and PTSD.

How does Trauma lead to Substance Abuse?

Some recent reports show that traumatic experiences, especially during childhood, create vulnerability to the later abuse of addictive substances. One of the effects of most drugs is to increase the levels of a particular neurotransmitter in the brain, dopamine, also sometimes called the “molecule of happiness.” Dopamine is known to help calm one’s anxiety and depression that may be related to the traumatic occurrence. Individuals may seek out drugs of abuse because they are looking to avoid the uncomfortable emotions associated with what happened to them, and “zoning out” or “numbing” under the influence of the substance appears to be the more desirable choice than learning to face or process their experience. 

A typical drug such as cocaine prolongs the action of dopamine in the brain, causing a feeling of euphoria and well-being. It also modifies how neurons communicate, increasing, or decreasing the connection between them. These changes in neurons alter the way that the brain is wired, and are vital processes in learning and memory. When a substance like cocaine is consumed, our brain “learns” to need the drug to carry out its function, and addictive patterns take root.

Consequently, one of the biggest problems among people who have decided to pursue recovery is the high percentages of relapse after a period of withdrawal. During the withdrawal period, which may be courtesy of a detoxification program, or simply when someone does not have the funds to purchase their next ‘fix’,  a person experiences stress and anxiety due to the lack of the drug’s effect on their brain.

Are those who have experienced trauma ‘doomed’ to live a life of substance addiction?

So far, two concepts describe how we react to traumatic situations and the stress they generate. They are “Vulnerability”, which is defined as the diminished ability to recover from a disturbing situation; and “Resilience”, which is the ability to overcome and persevere despite exposure to a difficult situation.

However, some researchers have come up with results showing that stress at an early age (such as that caused by traumatic experiences), can generate resilience to the stress that will be experienced in future stages of life, that is, one becomes able to cope with it in a better way.

Trauma Throughout the Life Cycle

Let’s take a look at the impact of trauma at the various stages of life from conception to old age, in order to get a better understanding.

Prenatal stage

There is evidence that children are impacted by trauma experienced by their mother even before birth. Some mothers resort to specific behavioral patterns, namely ingesting mood-altering substances, as a way of dealing with trauma, or the stress of their pregnancy. Such a lifestyle could impact the child at the prenatal stage, as they are entirely dependent upon the mother for their sustenance, and uniquely in tune with the state of her hormones.

Moreover, fetal exposure to maternal stress is known to contribute to future emotional problems, impaired cognitive development, ADHD, and conduct disorders. In addition, some studies have identified the long-term effects of the mother’s own childhood maltreatment to have altered the brain structure and function of her future child’s developing brain. 

On the other hand, some emerging studies suggest that paternal exposure to trauma could also affect the developing fetus. Although there is no substantial evidence to back this claim, some promising research studies show the possibilities of spontaneous changes in the genetic makeup of the father’s sperm after exposure to trauma. 

Young Children and Adolescents

Child abuse and trauma have severe consequences that can last for a lifetime. This is because childhood is a critical period in which the nervous system is developing, and ways of relating with others and the world around you are newly cemented. Hence, any environmental factor can modify the structure and brain function, increasing the risk of developing psychiatric or behavioral problems. For these reasons, traumatic experiences in children generate greater vulnerability to drug use and abuse.

Such traumatic experiences and subsequent addictions are shown to impact adolescents in several ways. These include issues with attention, working memory, deficits in IQ, emotional discrimination, response inhibition, and more.


Most cases of trauma and their impact are heavily recorded at this stage of life. But here, we’ll look at gender-specific experiences and impact.

For the young male adult, the possible factors that could lead to PTSD include physical abuse, childhood neglect, combat exposure, and rape. Sometimes, young male adults seek a better alternative to feeling good and find belonging, so may engage in addictive behaviors. 

However, experiences that could predispose young female adults to PTSD include childhood physical abuse, being threatened with a weapon, physical attack, and sexual molestation. Exposure to such trauma could result in a wide range of health issues. These include difficulties in reproductive health, or sexual, mental, and physical problems. In some cases, there could be an increased vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS.

People tend to look for anchors to solve their trauma experiences. This could be cultural or even religious anchors that tie them to their present experience or even learning the skills of mindfulness through a reputable treatment program. In some cases, however, traumatized individuals may find alternative means of achieving the same result, which may be perceived as counterproductive. Again, this is where the cycle of addiction takes root, along with other vices that may be detrimental to one’s well-being.

Older adults

Studies have shown that aging populations are also more predisposed to poor psychiatric conditions due to cumulative trauma and accumulated life stressors. While cumulative trauma refers to the buildup of multiple traumas experienced by an individual over time in various situations, this can also include the difficulty of managing day-to-day situations.

Bottom line

Exposure to traumatic situations such as abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), domestic violence, and more during childhood and adolescence can lead to chronic mental and physical disorders and affect survivors the rest of their lives. Without taking proper care of yourself, and seeking the treatment that you may need, both to address problematic patterns of substance use, and to process the traumatic occurrence, you risk repeating the same age-old mistakes. Use the contact form on our website to get in touch with us, to learn how Launch Centers can help you or someone you love recover from even the most difficult traumatic experiences. 


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