Childhood Trauma and Substance Use

May 15, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

This blog may trigger some people. If you need emotional support to deal with a concern or feeling,  or are looking for information on mental health resources or services,  call310Mental Health Support at 310-6789 (no area code required). 

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – such as abuse, neglect or domestic violence – can have harmful effects on a person’s physical and emotional health. Those experiences can be described as trauma, and people often develop unhealthy ways of coping with difficult past experiences. Substance use, for example drinking alcohol or using other drugs, is a way people may cope with early trauma.   

Jan Ference, Director of Pathways to Healing Partnership and an expert on child development and addiction, explains that this path from childhood trauma to substance use is more than one of choice:  

The brain develops in a use-dependant way. This means the brain pathways that become the strongest and most established are the ones that are activated the most. The development of these pathways is based on your experience.  

If a child experiences a lot of stress, their brain can develop in a way that oxytocin – one of the hormones that helps us feel love and attachment – is released differently or not at all.

Jan explains this can make people especially vulnerable to substance use problems.

“[Some] people use substances because they’re overwhelmed by their pain and are trying to suppress it.

“And if you boil it all down, that feeling is brain chemistry. That’s essentially what people are doing if they’re addicted to a substance. They’re looking for what’s missing – and what may have been missing since they were an infant.” 

Sue’s story

The scenario Jan describes could apply to Sue’s early life. Sue, who has experienced addiction firsthand, shared how her childhood led to substance use in the Behind the Numbers project. 

“I started smoking and drinking at five at grandma’s house,” Sue explains. “Learned how to snuff gas at ten years old. By the age of twelve, I was out selling acid.”

“It was to escape from my state of mind,” Sue goes on. “My dad was very evil, told me I was useless. Abuse was the only attention I would get in life. There were no social workers, no one intervened. I’d cope by getting loaded.”

Sue stopped using substances when she became pregnant in her 20s. However, she lost her children to the foster system. “I felt so low,” Sue reflects. “That’s when I started using heroin.”

With the help of a social worker, Sue got her kids back. She’s now in recovery and stresses the importance of support in being able to take that step – support that Sue had lacked at the beginning.

“For the longest time I had no idea about any kind of help,” she says, “You really need someone to take your hand and almost babysit you, only then can you feel comfortable to try it.”

Learning more about adverse childhood experiences

Jan says researchers are still learning about how adverse childhood experiences relate to substance use and long-term health. Understanding how different people – with diverse cultural backgrounds, race, gender, and income – experience trauma in different ways, helps healthcare and service providers better support people.

As Sue’s story shows, compassionate, caring relationships are often part of the healing journey for people experiencing addiction – a message Jan reinforces on how to support someone with a history of trauma and substance use.

Meet them where they’re at, and don’t give up on them.

Have you experienced trauma or challenges related to substance use? You are not alone, help is available:

  • Call 1-800-563-0808 (toll-free) for confidential support from VictimLinkBC. This resource provides information and referral services to all victims of crime and immediate crisis support to victims of family and sexual violence. Available 24 hours a day.
  • Call 8-1-1 to speak to a health service navigator, who can help you find health information and services, or visit HealthLink BC Service Finder to search for services by region or area of practice.
  • Find more services that support people experiencing trauma and abuse here.

Learn how you can support those around you