Addiction is rooted in childhood trauma

We often think that people can only become addicted to drugs and alcohol. But addiction shows up in any behaviour that a person enjoys, finds some relief in, and therefore craves more of in the short term, but suffers negative consequences in the long term, and doesn’t give up this behaviour despite the negative consequences of their actions.

Addiction can be related to any behaviour, not just substances. It could be cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, marijuana, nicotine, alcohol. But could also be sex, gambling, shopping,  gaming, the internet, eating, work, extreme sports, working out, running, pornography - any number of human activities.   

The medical definition of addiction characterises it as a brain disorder that is largely caused by genetics. So the medical profession would see addiction as genetically inherited from parents and grandparents. The brain certainly has a an important role to play, but scientific evidence now suggests that genetic has nothing to do with addiction.

The other popular notion is that addiction is a choice. People choose to be addicted. This is why legal systems worldwide punish people for the behaviour that rises out of their addictions.

I want to share a much more useful and powerful description of why people become addicted that is gaining alot scientific support, and has grown out of the amazing work of Gabor Mate - who is a medical expert on trauma, addiction, stress and childhood development.

To understand addiction, we have to explore how our childhood needs were met by our parents or carers. Apart from our physical needs, we have two fundamental needs during childhood as an infant.  One is for attachment. Attachment is the closeness and proximity of another human being for the sake of being looked after. Young children need to develop a relationship with a caregiver or caregivers for normal social and emotional development. Animals are creatures of attachment. We have to attach or imprint on our caregivers otherwise we won’t survive.

If there is nobody who is motivated to take care of us when we’re young or we’re not motivated to attach to other people around us, we just can’t survive. The endorphins in our brain, which opiate drugs like heroin and fentanyl resemble, actually help to facilitate attachments. If you take young infant mice and you knockout there endorphin receptors in their brain so they don’t have endorphin or opiate activity in their brain, they won’t cry for help when they’re separated from their mothers. This would mean that they would die in the wild. 

So when there is stress and trauma during childhood, these endorphin systems don’t develop. And when people do heroin it actually feels like a warm soft, hug from a caregiver. They feel love and connection for the first time because an opiate like, heroin and fentanyl, are activating the very same endorphin brain receptors that facilitate attachment during childhood. That’s why opiates are such powerful drugs.

So we have this need for attachment. A human infant, which is the most helpless, the most immature of any animal species in the world, needs physical and emotional care and therefore cannot survive without attachment.   

Given humans have the longest period of development and attachment relationship of any animal species - well into adolescence - attachment is not a negotiable need for us as human beings.   

We, as human beings, have another need, which Gabor Mate calls authenticity. Authenticity means being connected to ourselves. Knowing what we feel and being able to act on it. This means our gut feelings. Those feelings that tell us we should act in a particular way.

If you look at how human beings evolved, for hundreds of thousands of years, human beings didn’t live in cities or houses. We lived out there in the wild until very recently in human existence. You don’t survive very long in the wild if you don’t listen to you gut feelings. If you start using your intellect instead of your gut feelings, you just don’t survive.

By the way, “gut feelings” are a real biological phenomenon because your gut communicates with your brain and your brain communicates with you gut with brain chemical to change your mood and emotions.

So attachment is a powerful survival need and authenticity is a survival need.

What happens if your authenticity threatens your attachment relationships?

For example, as ta wo year old maybe you get angry because you didn’t get that bar of chocolate before dinner. But your parents can’t handle anger because they grew up in a home where physical violence and anger were a routine part of their life. They’re terrified of any expression of anger. So they tell you, that good, well-behaved children don’t get angry.

But the message you receive instead as a child is not that good little children don’t get angry but rather angry little children don’t get loved. Because your parents are now disappointed with you, they won’t look at you. They talk to you in an aggressive, harsh way. So you are not feeling or experiencing love at that moment.   

But you’ve got to stay attached to your mum or dad or caregiver. So what you suppress is your authenticity. And this is why we lose connection to ourselves and our gut feelings.

So the very dynamic that is essential for our survival in a natural setting during our evolution now becomes a threat to our survival in the modern setting that we live in now. To stay authentic will actually threaten our attachment. So we give up our authentic feelings and we wonder who the hell we are? And who’s life is this? Who’s experiencing all this? Who am I really?

That’s were reconnection has to happen, where the healing has to happen. But it’s because of that tragic conflict between authenticity and attachment that most of us face that we lose our connection to our gut feelings. 

So this leads to the question of trauma. It’s one things to recognise that all this originates in childhood pain. It quite another to transform that pain into something healthy. So for that we have to understand what trauma is.

People often think that trauma is what happens to you. So trauma is being locked in a cupboard, trauma is being sexually abused, trauma is your mother’s alcoholism, trauma is an absent father. Those aren’t the traumas! Those are traumatic events or experiences. The trauma is not what happened to you. The trauma is what happens inside you, how you react and respond to those events.

As a result of these traumatic events, you get disconnected from your emotions and disconnected from your body. You have difficulty being in the present movement. You develop a negative view of your world, a negative view of yourself, and a defensive view of other people.

These perspectives keep showing up in your life in the present. So the addiction is not the primary problem.  It’s an attempt to solve a problem. And the real question is how did the problem arise. It’s alway rooted in childhood trauma and the addiction is an attempt to deal with the effects of childhood trauma. Which it does temporarily, but causes even more problems in the long-term.

So the issue is not to just recognise what happened to you 10, 20, 30 or however many years ago, but to recognise the manifestations of those childhood experience in the current moment and to transcend them.

How do you do that? By reconnecting with your self. By restoring the connection with your body and with your emotions that you lost.   And once you do. When you’ve found these feelings again, then you’re in recovery. You find your self.

The loss of self is the essence of trauma and addiction is an attempt to deal with the effects of childhood trauma.


So the real purpose of addiction treatment is reconnection. If you’re struggling with addiction, you are not alone. The path to recovery starts with reconnection to your true self.



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