How Do Trauma and Addiction Influence Each Other?

There are many theories on “what” addiction is and where it truly stems from. But probably one of the most commonly-studied influences in today’s mental health sphere is the relationship between trauma and addiction.

Whether it be a suppressed childhood trauma, PTSD from an accident, or mild to severe abuse between adults, traumatic experiences can take a negative toll on anyone. Sometimes even to the point of being unaware of how it leads one to face self-sabotage or even substance abuse.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse and Trauma on Addiction

Why do so many people turn to drugs or alcohol after experiencing some type of abuse or trauma? To start to understand the answers, first we need to look at what abuse and trauma cause within the mind and body.

The definition of trauma according to SAMHSA says:

“Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

man contemplating trauma and addiction

Many traumatic experiences can negatively impact brain circuits and impulse stress regulation in the brain. This means a person who grew up with abuse– or any person who goes through significant trauma at any age– can develop problems managing their emotions.

An increase in anxiety and depression, plus a higher focus on the “fight or flight” signals in the brain can become regular struggles. Sadly these things can occur without the traumatized person even realizing what’s happening. Because of this, many people turn to outside coping mechanisms in attempts to help soothe the pain. Two of the most common coping methods include drugs and alcohol.

Why People Turn to Drugs and Alcohol After Trauma

Many drugs cause dramatic changes in brain chemistry. For example, alcohol is a depressant which means it slows down the basic functions of the Central Nervous System. Anyone who consumes enough alcohol finds that it impairs their senses, perceptions, physical reactions, and emotions.

For someone dealing with lasting effects of trauma or abuse, alcohol tunes out or turns down the dial of any difficult emotions. Drinking to the point of blacking out quite literally allows a person to “tune out” of reality so they don’t have to confront trauma or abuse which brings pain and discomfort to their daily lives.

Other types of drugs offer different reactions, but for the most part, drug and alcohol consumption all come down to the same intention: to distract, escape, or emotionally turn off from personal pain from trauma or abuse. In some cases, like when a person has panic attacks, insomnia, and a slew of other symptoms occurring at once, substance use helps him or her fall asleep.

People who use substances to “relieve” negative emotions can soon grow dependent on them. This is because:

  • The individual finds it hard to cope in real life without feeling impaired or “numb”
  • Their tolerance to the substance(s) grows higher and therefore they need more of the drug to feel okay
  • Using substances as a “cruth” to ignore anxiety, depression, or painful memories increases to the point where a person needs to use in order to function without panicking.

woman healing from trauma and addiction

Common Substances Dealing with Trauma and Addiction:

Technically, people can use any substance to help them avoid fully coping with trauma, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or verbal abuse. Some of the most common we see are:

  • Alcohol
  • Cannabis
  • Opioids, like heroin
  • Prescription drugs or pain pills
  • Stimulants, like cocaine
  • Illicit drugs, like meth
  • Psychedelics or party drugs

A study from the US National Library of Medicine shows: “Emotional abuse in men significantly correlates to current heroin exposure, whereas in women it is linked to heavier lifetime cocaine use.”

Usually, trauma comes before addiction develops. But in some cases, the act of partaking in continual drug use can result in becoming part of a traumatic situation. Either way, the two often remain connected.

Addiction + Mental Illness = Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis or a co-occurring disorder” is when an individual has a diagnosed mental illness and a diagnosed substance abuse disorder at the same time. The two are sometimes quite common as a result of long-term childhood trauma or physical violence. Trauma can shape the brain. This is where we see in science that addiction is not merely “bad” people who don’t know how to have enough self-will. This mentality which looks down on addicts is an unhealthy stigma society holds– one that needs to be changed if we want to heal the issue.

Many experts say addiction is a result of a person trying to cover up abusive or traumatic events. Instead of healing the root issue through types of therapies, personal growth, clear communication, and professional care, addiction happens when the person tries to mask the symptoms.

Things like PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), abusive relationships, self-loathing, chronic anxiety, unhealthy lifestyle are all results that can stem from long term abuse.

man looking back on traumatic experiences

What Defines Trauma?

Trauma can be anything that occurs in a person’s life where they experience intense emotional, physical, or mental wounding. In fact, the word “trauma” is actually the Greek word for “wound”.  

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines trauma as a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.

Trauma overrides one’s ability to escape or cope with a harmful situation. An example of this is when a child gets violated in some way but is too young to understand fully how to process the experience. Nor do they know how to get help or find safety to get out of it. The longer this child is abused, the more damage will likely be done to their mental state. Sadly, this can lead to lifelong personal and mental issues they carry throughout the rest of their lives.

Other types of trauma include (but are not limited to):

  • Extreme neglect
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse or rape
  • Emotional abuse
  • Extreme physical injury
  • Motorized accidents
  • Combat or war
  • Living in an unsafe environment
  • Psychological abuse
  • Witnessing a heinous crime
  • Kidnapping
  • Constant bullying
  • Racism
  • Being a victim of ongoing harassment or stalking
  • Religious Trauma Syndrome
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Terrorism
  • Brainwashing or severe manipulation

As you can see, there are countless types of trauma. Some psychologists claim most, if not all, people experience some type of traumatic event in their life, whether mild or extreme. The main result of abuse or trauma is it leads to a sense of hopelessness, disempowerment, or lack of connection to the self and others.

How Abuse, Trauma and Addiction Correlate

  • 27% of veterans who suffer from PTSD also have a substance use disorder.
  • 52% of men with PTSD abuse alcohol, as do 27% of women.
  • Drug addiction is present on average 30% of men and women with PTSD. 
  • Nearly 75% of all people who have had some type of trauma claim they struggled with alcoholism.

man in therapy for co-occurring disorder

Healing the Roots of Trauma

How can someone successfully heal from trauma? First, we must realize the fact that substance abuse and mental issues– as well as trauma– often go hand-in-hand. To truly heal from one, we must address all of these.

Thankfully, many professional treatment centers and the mental health services administration work to focus on a trauma-focused treatment plan for people who need it.

What is Trauma-Focused Addiction Treatment?

Certain therapies can help people who are processing traumatic experiences better than other therapies. Most good therapists today keep up with relevant, current studies and deeply understand the effects of trauma and addiction today. Therefore, they can effectively work with patients who want to overcome their trauma and addiction.

Therapists who specialize in trauma and addiction can effectively guide a patient through their abusive or life-threatening experience from the past in a safe way. They have the skills and necessary tools to help the patient remain calm, go at their own pace, and reach breakthroughs through time and professional care. Of course, healing from any trauma or addiction can take time so it’s up to the patient to be willing and dedicated to their progress. The key is that you don’t have to be afraid. Working through uncomfortable, scary memories allows you to release them so they don’t have as strong a hold on you anymore. This is where true recovery begins.

Here are the 6 Guiding Principles to the Trauma-Informed Approach:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency
  3. Peer Support
  4. Collaboration and Mutuality
  5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice
  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

(From SAMHSA, 2018)

With co-occurring disorders, further help such as rehab, a 12-step community, or detox may be necessary for a better chance at recovery. Addictionologists and therapists work together to help explore the root of addiction and offer individualized methods on the patient’s treatment. The more the root issues are healed, the less chance of relapse there will be.

The types of therapies can include group therapy, individual, support groups, or medical practices. If childhood trauma was the main issue that led to addiction, a therapist can help you specifically with that. It’s possible to learn new thought and behavioral patterns in order to promote new neural pathways in the brain while overcoming childhood abuse.

healing from adverse childhood experiences and trauma

 

If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 949-625-4019.

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