According to a 2022 report from the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, nearly 10 million people over the age of 18 in the United States have substance use disorder (SUD). That’s almost 4% of the entire population.

Yet, despite the prevalence of addiction, a profound stigma surrounding addiction persists, and this stigma can have devastating consequences for those experiencing SUD, as well as for the people who love them.

Not only can the stigmatization of SUD prevent people impacted from seeking help, but it is often internalized by them. Indeed, “blame and shame” is often the hallmark of the experience of addiction, leading those with SUD to attribute their disorder to some personal fault or flaw: A lack of willpower, for example.

The reality, though, is that addiction often manifests as a reaction to adverse life experiences. That means that to heal the addiction, you will often first need to understand and treat the residual effects of the adverse life experience that’s fueling it.

Recognizing Adverse Life Experiences

One of the most difficult aspects of resolving the issues that are driving your dependency is recognizing those issues in the first place. You don’t have to have experienced some great catastrophe, such as a natural disaster or a violent crime, to be impacted significantly — in fact, research shows that adverse childhood experiences are some of the leading risk factors for addiction.

More commonplace events can serve as adverse triggers for children. Economic hardship in the household, for instance, is one of the most prevalent sources of these types of adverse experiences. Similarly, parental separation and divorce, and even conflict and arguments within the home can lead to deep-seated and enduring issues well into adulthood.

A particularly significant risk factor for addiction is growing up with a parent or family member who abuses drugs or alcohol. Not only does this often have a highly detrimental impact on the relationship between parents and children, undermining parents’ caregiving, but it also models the use of substances as a coping mechanism. This behavior is subconsciously internalized by the children of addicted parents, who often carry that terrible life lesson into adolescence and adulthood when addiction manifests in their own lives.

Addiction as a Coping Mechanism

One of the most tragic attributes of addiction is the tendency for the person experiencing it to blame themselves, to believe that turning to drugs or alcohol is the sign of a moral failure and not the symptom of a deeper and more complex psychological and biological disorder.

The reality, though, is that people who are dealing with adverse life experiences and/or unresolved trauma are often looking for some comfort. Thus, they may turn to drugs or alcohol to help them escape the symptoms of these issues.

Not only this, but trauma and adverse life experiences can induce both physiological and psychological changes that victims may not even be consciously aware of but that can impact their daily functioning nevertheless. For example, a state of hypervigilance means that you’re under nearly constant stress, which can then give way to anxiety and depressive disorders. These symptoms of depression and anxiety are often the most important precipitating factors in addiction. You turn to substances simply to try to make yourself feel better, even if only for a little while.

Breaking the Link

When you’re dealing with adverse life experiences or trauma and a substance use disorder, one of the first and most important steps you can take toward recovery is by working to resolve the pain of the past. At the very least, you must learn to self-reflect as a means of understanding not only what you have endured but also how those experiences are and have been affecting your life as a whole. This must include, of course, understanding how your specific situation contributes to your addiction.

This can be difficult to do alone. For this reason, seeking the help of a mental health counselor or a support group is often a good idea, particularly if you combine this with support from a certified addiction specialist or recovery center.

The Takeaway

Addiction is not a sign of moral failing or a lack of willpower. Often, it is the manifestation of unresolved adverse life experiences and even trauma. For this reason, understanding your own situation and how it relates to your addiction is essential both to your mental well-being and to your recovery. When you heal the pain of the past, you are better able to build the healthy, happy, and sober life you want and deserve.