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Childhood Emotional Abuse Linked to Adult PTSD, Opioid Misuse

Childhood Emotional Abuse Linked to Adult PTSD, Opioid Misuse

New research reveals that children who were emotionally abused are more likely to engage in rash, risky behavior in adolescence and to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as adults.

Moreover, opioid use appears to offered a refuge from PTSD for this group — while causing a host of new problems.

The severity of the PTSD was directly linked to the severity of their opioid-related problems.

In the study, University of Vermont scientists analyzed and cross referenced the results of a series of psychological tests administered to a sample of 84 individuals with a history of problem opioid use who had also suffered childhood trauma.

Earlier research has found that a high percentage of adults who abuse substances were maltreated in a variety of ways as children.

But few previous studies have investigated the causes of opioid addiction specifically, and no earlier ones narrowed the link among opioid users to emotional abuse.

Investigators discovered emotional abuse was much more strongly correlated with survey participants’ problem opioid use, than childhood sexual and physical abuse or other kinds of maltreatment such as neglect.

The findings are published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

“If a person is being physically or sexually abused, it’s easier to put the blame on the person doing the abuse,” said Dr. Matthew Price, the paper’s senior author.

“With emotional abuse, the abuser is saying ‘You are the problem.’ Being called names, being told you’re not good enough, being told no one cares about you undermines your ability to cope with difficult emotions.

“To protect themselves from strong emotions and from trauma cues that can bring on PTSD symptoms, people with this kind of childhood experience frequently adopt a strategy of avoidance, which can include opioid use.”

Investigators explain that the findings suggest why some opioid abusers don’t respond to substance abuse counseling or PTSD treatment. Moreover, the research points the way toward potentially more productive therapies.

Drug addiction and mental health issues are often treated separately by different kinds of specialists, Price said. “Mental health counselors will frequently say, ‘Deal with your drug issues first, then come to see me.'”

The study suggests “we should really start to explore more integrated treatment,” Price said.

“If a patient has had severe emotional abuse and they have a tendency to act out when they’re feeling upset, and then they turn to opioids to deal with the resulting PTSD, it makes sense to address the emotional component and the drug problems at the same time.”

In the study, participants were interviewed about their childhood experiences and then given a battery of psychological tests that measured the type and extent of any maltreatment they had experienced as children.

They were also queried on the extent to which their opioid use was causing life problems, the severity of their addiction, the extent of their impulsive behavior, and the extent and severity of their PTSD.

The researchers used a sophisticated statistical method known as structural equation modeling, or SEM, to make connections between the data sets each of the individual tests brought to light. The model revealed the pathway from childhood emotional abuse to rash adolescent behavior to PTSD to opioid abuse.

Source: University of Vermont/EurekAlert
Photo: New research suggests that emotional abuse may be at the root of the problems suffered by many opioid addicts, a finding that signals new treatment approaches. Credit: Brian Jenkins.

Childhood Emotional Abuse Linked to Adult PTSD, Opioid Misuse

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Childhood Emotional Abuse Linked to Adult PTSD, Opioid Misuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 15 Mar 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.