a child wading in the water

Is Childhood Trauma Driving Your Substance Use? How to Break Free


Sober Recovery Expert Author

a child wading in the water

Have you ever heard a childhood friend say something like, “Remember when those bullies made fun of us and stole our toys? That was so traumatic,” and you thought, “What? I was there, and it wasn’t that bad. It was just normal kid stuff!”

Or maybe you’ve been on the other side of the equation. Perhaps you’ve tried to share an experience that was unsettling to you, only to find that your friend didn’t understand why you were upset.

Since most people’s addictions find their roots in unresolved mental and emotional issues, healing from trauma is a vital component of long-term recovery.

If so, then it may surprise you to discover that trauma is a highly subjective experience. It’s not about what your parents or your friends think “should have” hurt you; rather, it’s about what has actually hurt you. In fact, at The Clearing, we define a traumatic event as “one that is shocking to you personally” and “something that shakes your sense of safety and emotional stability in the world.”

Since most people’s addictions find their roots in unresolved mental and emotional issues, healing from trauma is a vital component of long-term recovery.

How the Present can "Trigger" Past Traumas

Once you truly understand what trauma means, you can start looking at your life in a new light. You can recognize your traumas and see how an emotional part of you gets stuck at the age you were when those traumatic events occurred.

For example, say your boss offers some constructive criticism, and you don’t take it well. You’re barely able to hold it together before bursting into tears in the bathroom. Even though intellectually, you recognize that your boss’s words are fair and helpful, you can’t help but be emotionally devastated. You wonder, “Why am I having such a hard time?”

However, receiving criticism from an authority figure may have brought you back to a painful time in your past. When certain events remind us of our childhood traumas, the younger part of ourselves takes over, and we act out.

Maybe you’ve seen another adult have a meltdown and thought, "Wow, that person is acting like an eight-year-old." And you’re right, at that particular point in time, that person really is an eight-year-old emotionally.

Discovering Trauma by Following the Energy Back

Traumatic events shape you emotionally, and until you start healing, you will keep operating out of a wounded place whenever you’re triggered—that’s where addiction comes into the picture. Every time stress comes up in your adult life that is similar to past trauma, your younger, unhealed self will start to have anxiety. You may then turn to substances, drinking or using in an attempt to manage that underlying fear. While simply trying to feel better, you then develop a dependence on the addictive substance.

But contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to start your healing process by trying to list out all of your childhood traumas. Rather, you can begin with the present and “follow the energy back.”

Exercise: Take a recent instance when you were feeling upset and off-kilter emotionally. Describe the situation in detail; write down what was going on, paying particular attention to your internal, emotional reactions. Then, ask yourself, “When is the first time that I can remember feeling that way?"

Example: Connecting the Past and the Present

Maybe when your boss provided constructive criticism, you felt small and ashamed and afraid—the same way you did when you were in second grade, and you failed your spelling test. Even though you tried your best, you struggled, and it seemed as though all the other kids found it easy. This led you to wonder if something was wrong with you. Plus, you got into trouble at home because your parents were upset about the poor grade. After that, you secretly believed that you were stupid, that you should have done better, and that you’d let your parents and your teacher down. To avoid the shame, you resolved never to fail and let authority figures down again.

You may not know it, but that early academic failure as a child is the original root event of why you felt triggered by your boss’s feedback as an adult. The good news is that if you can heal that root event, you can also heal from all the other times that underlying issue has previously come up in your life.

Setting Yourself Free From Trauma

To deal with your traumas is to begin to know yourself. Daunting though it can be, it’s also a potent process. As you now know, your traumas are unique to you. As such, addressing and healing them is an opportunity to encounter your true self, not the self you think you should be, with no hurts or difficulties—but your real, inescapably human self.

You may feel that your traumas are what block your recovery, but what if your traumas are actually the way to your recovery? What if you faced them and healed them? What might happen next?

As recovering alcoholic, drug addict, and bulimic, Anne Lamott writes in her memoir Traveling Mercies:

“... You can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth.”

When you dare to walk through your anger and damage and grief, you’ll find that the beautiful truth of your own life is waiting on the other side.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 866-606-0182 to start the path to recovery today.

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