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Finding The Link: Adverse Childhood Experiences and Addiction

October 25, 2019

By Kaitlyn Mercy

What are ACE’s?

In 1998, a study was published by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control that studied the long-term effects of childhood trauma. The study was conducted among 17,000 individuals who belonged to the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization, and were primarily middle and upper class, white, and college-educated.

The study identified ten specific experiences, referred to in the study as “Adverse Childhood Experiences”, that are considered traumatic to a child:

  • Physical Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Physical Neglect
  • Emotional Neglect
  • Mental Illness in the Home
  • Incarcerated Relative
  • Substance Abuse in the Home
  • The disappearance of a Parent (divorce, death, abandonment)
  • Domestic Violence

In addition to these ten ACEs, there are other environmental and community-related ACEs such as racism, bullying, and community violence.

The conclusion of the study was that the more of these adverse experiences an individual experiences during childhood, the more likely they are to experience physical and mental health problems, social difficult, and emotional dysregulation.

The ACEs study was groundbreaking and truly revolutionized the way that we think and view the physical and mental health problems of those who have been subjected to traumatic experiences. Many healthcare systems and providers have incorporated ACE screenings into their intake paperwork in an effort to provide the most trauma-informed and effective approach possible.

The Effects of Different Types of Stress

According to the American Psychological Association, there are three types of stress:

  • Positive Stress: Normal and healthy stress responses to situations like the first day of school or a new job.
  • Tolerable Stress: The body’s response to a long-lasting or life-altering event such as the death of a family member, but with a positive support system in place to aid with the grieving and healing process.
  • Toxic Stress: The body’s reaction to frequent and intense traumatic situations such as chronic neglect, sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic violence.

When an individual, particularly a child, experiences long term toxic stress, it can often cause difficulties throughout the duration of their life. Long term exposure to toxic stress can affect neural connections, which ultimately results in a disruption of brain development. The original ACE study found that adults who had been subjected to 4 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences were at a significantly higher risk for behavioral issues, mental and physical health problems later on in life.

Some of these issues include:

The Connection Between Adverse Childhood Experiences & Substance Abuse

The role that trauma plays in addiction is not a new one, but it is a large one. According to The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individuals who experience at least one traumatic event in their childhood are four times more likely to suffer from drug and alcohol dependence later in life.

It makes perfect sense that an individual who has been put in vulnerable situations and taken advantage of and/or abused would search for something that they can control. The reality is that drugs and alcohol become a source of comfort for many. These substances allow the user to “numb out” or cope with the effects of the trauma they’ve endured, and can often be used to cover up symptoms of underlying mental health conditions like depression, bipolar, and post-traumatic stress. While used as a form of self-soothing, this comfort can easily and quickly spiral into a full-blown drug or alcohol dependence or addiction.

Treating The Individual, Not Just The Addiction

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a disease; and like any other disease, requires medical intervention and treatment.

There are a variety of treatment options available for individuals suffering from drug and alcohol dependence, but a significantly smaller number that treat the individual as a whole by addressing addiction, mental health, and trauma.

Similar to placing a band-aid over an infected wound and expecting it to heal, treating someone for addiction without getting to the “why” of their addiction won’t empower an individual to truly recover. If an individual is seeking treatment for substance abuse, it’s important for providers to assess the reason for their use and dependence, not just the fact that they’re using drugs and alcohol.

Addressing trauma in substance abuse treatment means that the providers take a “trauma-informed” approach. This means that everyone who comes in contact with the client has a basic understanding of the connection between trauma and addiction. The goal of treating the individual as a whole is to directly address the impact that trauma has had on their life, and to create a safe and comfortable environment in which they can process and begin to heal.

The mental health provider’s job is not to do the work for the client, but to empower them to do the work for themselves. Healing is not an event or occasion, but instead a process and a journey that requires an enormous amount of work.

Sandstone Care’s Trauma-Informed Approach

The goal of substance abuse, mental health, and trauma treatment at Sandstone Care has always been to treat the individual as a whole. We do this so as not to just address the things they’re struggling with in the present, but to understand past events that led them to this point in their life.

Reading about trauma and the things that people have been through and deal with throughout their lives can be overwhelming and maybe make you feel helpless. Regardless of the difficult things you have endured, there is always an opportunity for hope and healing, in everyone’s life.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, mental health, or trauma, consider reaching out to one of our knowledgeable mental health and treatment professionals by calling (202) 804-8468

Whether you’re ready to seek help or not, knowing you have someone you can turn to when you’re ready is always important.

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