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Relating Childhood Trauma and Chronic Distress to Drug Abuse

Ever wondered why people do drugs? Why you use a specific coping strategy to counter stress? How upsetting childhood trauma can be? It’s all interconnected.

People are a product of their genes and external influences from the environment. How a person chooses to manage stress, is dependent on personality traits and gene characteristics of that individual. The environment contributes significantly in shaping peoples response to stress.

Varying genes and exposure to different environments enable people to react in a different way when faced with stress i.e. people would perceive a stressful event differently, their neural circuitry would interpret it differently and their response along with adaptive reactions would also be different. So what regulates these differences?

Rajita Sinha in How does Stress Increase Risk of Drug Abuse and Relapse? is of the opinion that this dissimilarity in stress response amongst individuals can also be categorized in terms of:

  • childhood trauma
  • chronic distress

These two, of course, are not the only aspects that define an individuals stress response. Nonetheless, they do have a prominent impact on how a person deals with stress.

Stressful events or trauma during childhood such as seclusion, are known to induce a drug seeking behavior (Adler, Bendotti, Ghezzi, Samanin, & Valzelli, 1975). Similarly, increased levels of CRF have been associated with chronic distress (Arborelius, Owens, Plotsky, & Nemeroff, 1999), which in turn induce a drug seeking behavior.

Childhood Trauma and Drug Abuse

Instances of drug abuse in people with a traumatic background, is fairly common. Especially, people that have been traumatized physically during their childhood are prone to adapt a drug seeking behavior (Widom, Weiler, & Cottler, 1999).

Research regarding animal reaction to stress during its early phases of life, support a positive relation between stressful events and drug abuse. Such instances were found in rats (Kosten, Miserendino, & Kehoe, 2000) and rhesus monkeys (Higley, Hasert, Suomi, & Linnoila, 1991) when exposed to a stressful environment.

While there are varying categories of stressful events to which an individual might be exposed, during his/her childhood, isolation and social separation are prioritized during relevant studies. Here is what happens:

  1. An individual is socially isolated or perceives that he/she is isolated during childhood.
  2. This registers as a stressful event.
  3. This stressful event during childhood encourages drug seeking behavior and drug abuse.

In rats isolation during early life increases self-administration of cocaine and morphine (Adler, Bendotti, Ghezzi, Samanin, & Valzelli, 1975).

Chronic Distress and Drug Abuse

As vanity, pessimism and narcissism in college students, and the whole general populace increases along with pressures from an ever-evolving world that requires the youth to struggle more than their predecessors in order to adapt to the changing environment; distress is common.

The relation between stress and drug abuse is reasonable, evident and perhaps understandable to even those who are uninformed. If such a relation exists in association with a single stressful event, reasoning the relation between chronic stress and drug abuse is relatively elementary. Studies depict an increased usage of alcohol, nicotine and marijuana in subjects going through chronic distress. (Kandel, et al. 1997; King, Ghaziuddin, McGovern, Brand, Hill, & Naylor, 1996; Rao, Ryan, Dahl, Rao, Williamson, & Perel, 1999).

Moreover, chronic distress dysregulates the brain stress circuitry (Arborelius, et al. 1999). Neural connections and chemical interactions involved in the wake of a stressful event, as detailed in Understanding Stress and its Components, are disturbed by this continued distress and perhaps their involvement as a response to the event is altered overtime. These alterations contribute positively to enhance drug abuse in terms of increased sensitivity to drug use. Following is a list that connects chronic distress to drug abuse:

  1. An individual succumbs to chronic distress.
  2. Chronic distress upsets the brain stress circuitry involved.
  3. The individual seeks relief in drugs.
  4. This alteration apparently increases susceptibility to drug abuse.
  5. The individual increases his/her frequency of drug use.

The Connection

So why do people start abusing drugs? The answer is simple and dependent on various psychological and physiological happenings the individual experiences.

One aspect, the psychological aspect, is to take into account the mental state of the individual, the personality traits, grooming and effects of the surrounding environment. An individual brought-up in an environment supporting drugs or a stressed environment that pressurizes an individual to take drugs for relief (which may be due to a childhood trauma or social separation), fundamentally programs the individual to rely on such sources of relief from distress, with regards to future stressful events.

However, such an episode does not occur independent of physiological associations. As described earlier, the individuals brain stress circuitry is somewhat altered (Arborelius, et al. 1999) in connection with affective and cognitive modifications from the environment.

When people are faced with stress, they tend to employ a certain coping strategy to counter it. Those that have a poor coping capability, when faced with chronic distress or childhood trauma, are at an increased risk of drug abuse.

Thus, alteration in mental status and physiological changes in support of it, promote drug abuse in individuals who have experienced childhood trauma and/or chronic distress.

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