Growing pains: When childhood distress stretches into adulthood

Research shows a relationship between traumatic or stressful experience in early life and dealing with substance use, problem gambling, anxiety, and depression as an adult. Not all kids who endured adversity experience problems with addictive behaviours later in life, but some do.

Kids can experience lots of different types of stress or trauma, such as:

  • losing a parent
  • witnessing or living through family violence or other abuse
  • illness or injury
  • living with a mentally ill parent
  • financial and/or housing instability

Why do these kinds of experiences in childhood make people more vulnerable to problems as adults? We’re still not entirely sure.

A common theory is that experiencing adversity as a child can cause physical changes in the brain. Kids who experience stress or trauma may find that they experience ‘fight or flight’ mode more frequently than their peers. Stress hormones flood their developing brain and body. Over time, they may become chronically over- or under-responsive to the hormones as a result of overexposure. They might be on edge all of the time, or completely numb.

These stressful experiences leave a mark on the way their brains work to regulate emotions and impulses. As adults, they typically experience more mental or emotional distress than the general population. This leaves them vulnerable to ‘reward-seeking’ behaviour, such as gambling, that triggers the release of chemicals associated with pleasure, such as dopamine or serotonin. Reward-seeking behaviours can become addictive: when something feels good, you want to experience it again.

If you had a difficult childhood and now find yourself wanting to make a change to your gambling, it can be helpful to understand that there may be physiological or emotional factors that led you to this situation, as it can help you to figure out how to act from here.

For many people, a big step can be to work on changing the way that they relate to and manage stress, and find alternative ways to regulate intense emotions. Others may feel they need to address their childhood pain before they can move forward.

Gambling Help counsellors can help you figure out what you need to successfully make a change in your life. Be kind to yourself. If you want to make a change, call 1800 858 858 to speak to a professional, free and confidential counsellor who can help you decide what to do next.

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