Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction


Dr. Gabor Mate, author of “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addictions,” suggests that one of the major causes of addictions is childhood trauma.

For years the addiction field has said that addictions were caused by genetics. If your father is an addict then you have the gene for it and you will become an addict. We now know that the gene is passed on, but it can be turned off if the child has a good and supportive, nurturing family system. The importance of “good enough” parenting makes a big difference in the development of one’s brain.

Dr. Mate states that addictions are “compulsive repetition of behaviors that give pleasure and relief that create long term problems with negative consequences.” Ultimately, these behaviors are to soothe the effects of childhood trauma. Dr. Mate’s proposal of looking at addictions through the lens of trauma is an important step in helping people with addictions heal.

If a child is neglected and abused – physically, emotionally, and/or sexually – it impacts the child’s brain development, and sets up the circuits to possibly become an addict. The brain doesn’t develop in a way where the child learns healthy ways to self-soothe. Therefore, it will be easier to turn to something outside of oneself (alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, internet watching, chocolate, etc.) to soothe later in life because the brain has been wired that way. Dr. Mate stated that having supportive and nurturing people in one’s life is essential to develop the brain in a healthy way.

What I found interesting in his interview is that he stated that less than 5% of his patients heal from addictions and he feels that the way society is set up to punish the addict does not encourage healing. He feels the concept of “War on Drugs” actually means there is a “War on Addicts” and that society ostracizes these people instead of helping them heal what is really the issue – childhood trauma.

What Dr. Mate did not mention in this interview is psychotherapy to help heal the trauma. The center that he works at is for people who have no where to go, and that many are barely surviving due to their drug and alcohol addictions and are needing lots of medical attention. Dr. Mate’s patients have severe addictions, and may be able to get more stable with EMDR treatment.

Many addiction therapists are now being trained in EMDR, and helping people with addictions start to heal their childhood traumas. As the childhood traumatic events are processed, the compulsions start to diminish. New neural pathways are being developed to help support a healthier sense of self.

For more information about Dr. Gabor Mate, visit his site:

What is trauma? Learn more about “EMDR Therapy Tools for Addictions”