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Trauma, Drugs, Alcohol and Treatment - What's the Catch?

If you love someone who has become dependent on drugs or alcohol, you’ve probably asked them – and yourself – “Why don’t they just stop? Why do they keep going down this deadly, destructive road?” You probably know that genetics play a role in the development of substance use disorder, but did you know that trauma is often a factor, as well?

As pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains in a compelling TedTalk, the repeated stress of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact the developing brain and lead to many chronic diseases, including addiction or alcoholism.

Growing up with abuse, sexual violence, neglect or parents who struggle with mental health issues have real, tangible effects on the development of the brain.

  • The original ACE Study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997.
  • Over 17,000 HMO members completed confidential surveys about their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.

As Dr. Burke explains, there are real neurologic reasons why those exposed to significant childhood trauma are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors. Exposure to early adversity affects these parts of the developing brain:

  • the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain;
  • the amygdala, the brain’s emotional learning and fear response center;
  • the prefrontal cortex, which manages impulse control and executive function.

When seeking treatment for substance use disorder, it’s important to understand the role of trauma in the development of this chronic disease. It’s even more important to look at any trauma through sober eyes. Successful treatment of trauma is unlikely when drugs or alcohol continue to cloud the picture.

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