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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, misuse and addiction to opioid drugs is a serious national crisis in the United States. Every year, opioid misuse costs the country $78.5 billion, and in 2019 over 50,000 people died from an opioid overdose.

To help tackle this crisis, extensive scientific research has tried to uncover some of the reasons behind opioid dependence and abuse. Recent studies have suggested that early life adversity – stressful childhood experiences – could be an important risk factor for developing an opioid addiction.

What Is Early Life Adversity?

Early life adversity is the experience of distressing or traumatic events in a person’s childhood. Adverse childhood experiences may include physical or sexual abuse, exposure to violence, neglect, lack of affection, or witnessing a parent’s alcohol or drug addiction.

Early childhood adversity can affect brain development and have a major impact on a person’s later life and mental and physical health. It can start destructive thought and behavioral patterns that can be carried through to adulthood, affect the ability to form healthy relationships and cause low self-esteem, distrust, and aggression. 

Early life adversity increases your risk of developing many kinds of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, alcoholism, and other substance use disorders.

What Is the Link Between Opioid Dependency and Early Life Adversity?

Recent studies have uncovered a worrying correlation between opioid dependence and early life adversity. They have found that individuals with a history of child abuse and adversity are disproportionally prone to opioid addiction. 

Advanced and sophisticated research is currently taking place into exactly how this relationship works. A Molecular Psychiatry study found that, in rats, stressful early life events may lead to increased relapse-like behavior and major increases in opioid demand. They may also increase the desire for treats, leading people to seek highly pleasurable experiences like opioid highs.

Another study found that early life adversity like child abuse, neglect, and low socioeconomic status can affect your stress response system by diminishing your cortisol response to stress. Cortisol is a hormone that your body naturally releases in stressful situations that helps you respond to and recover from these events in a healthy way. Diminished cortisol responses can have a range of effects, including alcohol abuse and experimentation with drugs, and may help explain the link between early life adversity and opioid dependency.

A third study found that childhood adversity could have an impact on the reward system in the brain. Disruption to the reward system is an underlying feature of most addictions and can contribute to the development of opioid addiction. It causes the brain to compulsively seek a substance in pursuit of a reward, even when it is harmful to your health and well-being. 

Treatment and Prevention

The effects of early life adversity can be extremely damaging in the long term, leading to opioid dependencies and psychological disorders. However, adults, children, and families can seek treatment to safely manage the feelings connected with traumatic early life experiences and prevent them from causing further problems later in life.

Effective, evidence-based programs are available to treat opioid dependence and addiction. Rehabilitation centers offer various therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, talking therapies, and other treatment approaches to support people through the recovery process and help them maintain abstinence.

Most programs offer dual diagnosis treatment plans where early childhood adversity can be treated alongside addiction for people who have also suffered from childhood trauma. Treating co-occurring disorders as part of an addiction treatment program helps substance users overcome the underlying causes of addiction, so they do not slip back into old habits at the end of the treatment program. 

This approach facilitates holistic healing of the entire person and supports them on the road to a happy and productive sober life.