Childhood Emotional Abuse May Increase Risk of Opioid Misuse

Sad child looking downChildhood emotional abuse is correlated with later misuse of opioids, according to a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. The study found emotional abuse is more strongly linked to later opioid addiction than other forms of childhood abuse, such as sexual or physical abuse.

In 2014, opioid-related deaths reached record levels, with heroin and prescription opioids claiming 47,055 lives. People with a history of opioid abuse consistently encounter barriers to recovery. A 2015 study found 91% of opioid overdose survivors subsequently received more prescription opioids.

Childhood Psychological Abuse: Risk Factor for Opioid Addiction?

The study used structural equation modeling (SEM) to examine correlations between childhood maltreatment, opioid abuse, and mental health issues such as posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Researchers included 84 people with a history of childhood trauma and opioid misuse. Participants completed a wide range of psychological tests to assess mental health and behavioral traits such as impulsivity.

Emotional abuse, but not other forms of abuse, was linked to a heightened risk of PTSD. People with PTSD were more vulnerable than other groups to opioid misuse. As the severity of PTSD symptoms increased, so too did the severity of opioid addiction. Emotional abuse also increased impulsive behavior. People with impulsive tendencies were more likely to abuse opioids.

The study suggests people exposed to emotional abuse may rely on avoidance-based strategies as coping mechanisms. Opioid use often acts as a way to avoid emotional pain.

Alternative Treatments for People Addicted to Opioids

Some people who abuse opioids do not respond to traditional addiction treatments. The study points toward the role of alternative approaches that consider a history of trauma.

In many treatment programs, addiction issues and mental health issues are treated separately. By integrating mental health and addiction treatment, treatment providers may be better equipped to treat underlying issues that contribute to opioid abuse as well as addiction issues.


  1. Mirhashem, R., Allen, H. C., Adams, Z. W., Stolk-Cooke, K. V., Legrand, A., & Price, M. (2017). The intervening role of urgency on the association between childhood maltreatment, PTSD, and substance-related problems. Addictive Behaviors, 69, 98-103. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2017.02.012
  2. New study links opioid epidemic to childhood emotional abuse. (2017, March 14). Retrieved from

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