What causes childhood psychotrauma and how often do they occur
Childhood trauma is an emotionally painful stressful event that can cause great harm to a person’s physical and mental health and ruin their entire life.
Unfortunately, psychotrauma is not so rare. Every year in developed countries, 4-16% of children are abused, and 1 in 10 children are neglected or psychologically abused.
According to the American organization that studies traumatic stress in children, two-thirds of children under 16 have time to survive at least one traumatic event, whether it be abuse, bullying at school, the loss of a loved one, lack of attention from parents, or a serious illness.
According to WHO, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 13 men were sexually abused as children.
Childhood trauma can cause many negative consequences, including:
- development of depressive and anxiety disorders;
- impaired cognitive functions such as memory, attention and control;
- maladaptive behaviors such as aggression and hyperactivity;
- committing violence;
- risky sexual behavior;
- unplanned pregnancy;
- communication problems;
- sleep disturbance.
Childhood trauma can ruin health, involve people in painful relationships, interfere with job success, and lead to social isolation. Moreover, they are directly related to many addictions.
How childhood trauma is linked to the development of addictions
Childhood abuse, whether it be lack of attention, emotional neglect, or abuse, greatly increases the risk of developing dependence on alcohol and other psychoactive substances.
The researchers note that this may be due to the peculiarities of brain development:
1. Malfunctions in the work of the dopaminergic system
This is a series of brain structures that transmit and receive nerve impulses with the help of the neurotransmitter dopamine . Thanks to him, we experience joyful anticipation, expecting something pleasant, and strive for it.
A lack of emotional interaction between parents and a child can disrupt the formation of the dopaminergic system of the brain, and experienced stress can reduce the number of receptors for this neurotransmitter.
One study found that survivors of sexual abuse had abnormalities in the blood supply to the cerebellar vermis. This structure influences the dopaminergic system in the midbrain and is thought to be key in the formation of addiction.
If a person experienced abuse or lack of care in childhood, there is a risk that in later life they will have an impaired ability to enjoy interpersonal relationships and maintain cultural and social values. As a result, he may choose other ways to stimulate reward pathways in the brain—drugs, sex, or aggression.
2. Disorders in the work of the hippocampus
Stress can cause chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which in turn damages the hippocampus, the structure responsible for memory and emotion processing.
One study found that women with depression who had experienced sexual abuse had 18% less volume in their left hippocampus than those who had not experienced abuse.
Violations in the work of this brain structure are often found in people with food addiction and obesity . After saturation, the hippocampus does not block the pleasant sensations of eating, which causes a person to systematically overeat and gain weight.
3. Reduced volume of the prefrontal cortex
Child abuse survivors have smaller brain volumes and reduced gray matter in different parts of the prefrontal cortex.
This region of the cerebral cortex plays an important role in the suppression of impulsive behavior. Problems in his work may explain the inability to cope with his own impulses and desires, which makes a person especially vulnerable to the development of addictions.
4. Overactive amygdala
The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system that responds to stress and triggers the fight-or-flight response. In childhood abuse survivors, there is a reactivity of this brain structure, as well as an increased number of connections between the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.
Traumatic events cause the stress-response system to kick in over the smallest of things, resulting in constant stress and anxiety.
To get rid of stress, people take alcohol and other psychoactive substances or become addicted to socially acceptable activities.
What addictions can arise due to psychotrauma
Most of the scientific research is devoted to the impact of psychological trauma on the development of chemical addictions – addiction to alcohol and drugs. The connection between these phenomena is well proven.
For example, one study tested how 10 different categories of painful childhood experiences, including physical or sexual abuse, divorce, alcoholism, or parental death, affected the likelihood of substance abuse. It turned out that each of these events increased the risk of early drug use by 2-4 times. And people who survived 5 or more types of childhood trauma were 7-10 times more likely to experience chemical addiction.
However, there are other, much less explored addictions that can do a lot of harm. Psychologist and relationship and trauma specialist Annie Thanasugarn writes in a Medium article that behavioral addiction can develop from a smartphone, video games, sex, food, pornography, relationships, work, or shopping. People use such activities to cope with painful emotions and their own vulnerability, to get instant relief and distract from their sorrows.
The main problem with behavioral addictions is that often their objects cannot be removed from life once and for all. For example, work, shopping, using a smartphone , and even more so, eating are normal daily activities. Therefore, such dependencies are more difficult to detect and control.
When a person is bored or feels the echoes of past emotional pain, they can absolutely legally and without social condemnation turn to food, exercise, video games, or start another relationship. And the more these things distract him from his emotions, the higher the risk of developing addiction and worsening the quality of life.
The habit of drowning out emotions with food can lead to obesity, the passion for exercise can lead to overtraining and injury, excessive love of shopping can drive you into debt, and workaholism can destroy relationships and family.
How to understand if addiction is associated with psychotrauma
There are several ways to determine whether it is time to make an appointment with a psychotherapist.
1. Recall if there is a painful childhood experience
Many victims of physical or sexual abuse do not tell their stories, even at a psychotherapist’s appointment, because they forget the pain they experienced.
For example, one study found that 38% of girls who had experienced sexual violence either did not remember or outright denied what had happened after 17 years.
Even in less horrific events, people often fail to see the connection between traumatic childhood experiences and bad habits . They do not talk about a possible connection and separate themselves from the past in order to protect themselves from unpleasant memories and negative emotions. At the same time, accepting and working through painful experiences can be important for addiction recovery.
2. Consider if there are habits that help you hide from reality
Annie Thanasugarn reveals that traumas associated with sexual abuse increase the risk of addiction to sex, infidelity, or avoiding real relationships in favor of virtual ones, whether it’s a smartphone or video games.
If a person was raised by aggressive or indifferent parents, he may abuse activities for which he receives recognition from others. For example, exhausting yourself with workouts in the gym, becoming a workaholic, or constantly starting new relationships in order to regularly confirm your worth.
In addition, the trauma of a lack of parental warmth can make a person awkward, shy, and socially avoidant, which in turn leads them to immerse themselves in video games, smartphones, or social media. This helps to keep people at a distance and not feel vulnerable.
3. Assess if everything is in order with personal relationships
Annie Thanasugarn claims that her clients often make toxic connections because they perceive them as comfortable and familiar.
Traumatized people may find a healthy relationship free of drama and violence boring and uncomfortable. As a result, they will start to escape from reality, using video games or pornography, changing or breaking the connection in order to replace it with something more familiar – and toxic.
To evaluate your relationship, it is worth analyzing whether it is based on feelings of shame and guilt, emotional vulnerability and fear of being abandoned. Such connections are often formed by avoidant attachment types , in which they seem to want intimacy, but at the same time run away from it.
4. Listen to yourself while relaxing
If calmness and silence confuse and disturb, this is a bad sign. Multitasking is a common type of behavior for people who are afraid to be alone with their thoughts.
A survivor of childhood trauma often tries to fill his schedule to capacity. Work and career, household chores, constant attempts to arrange a personal life – all this allows you to avoid silence and tranquility, during which negative emotions and thoughts about your own worthlessness begin to surface.
In order not to leave any loopholes for unpleasant experiences, while creating a report on work, such people can listen to a podcast, and do home cleaning while the TV is on. If activities suddenly disappear – for example, on a day off there are no meetings or any business – a person may be nervous, angry or depressed , feeling not good enough.
What to do if addiction is associated with psychotrauma
First of all, you need to stop avoiding unresolved problems or emotionally distance yourself from them. Trying to numb the pain with food, sex, or alcohol will not make life better.
To recognize that there is a problem, you can try mindfulness techniques. They will help determine when exactly you are irresistibly drawn to indulge in the usual pleasures and what emotions you want to drown out in this way. For example, meditation perfectly develops a conscious attitude towards one’s state.
At the same time, it is unlikely that you can heal an old psychotrauma that causes unpleasant experiences on your own. The psyche hides a painful experience from us remarkably, so not every person can pull it out.
Find a good psychotherapist or psychologist and work with him on the causes of addictions. The specialist will help you understand what causes you so much pain and makes you seek salvation, will give you the tools to work through traumas and help you develop understanding, compassion and self-respect.
Read also 🧐