Researchers have established a strong link between traumatic experiences and problems with substance abuse. One study found that more than 19% of teenagers receiving treatment for substance use disorder had also experienced a traumatic event in their life, while the National Survey of Adolescents found that teens with a history of physical or sexual abuse or assault were three times more likely to report an issue with substance use.
But it isn’t just teens experiencing a connection between trauma and addiction, although childhood trauma certainly plays a role. Adults can suffer from this connection, too.
Types of Trauma
An everyday negative experience does not qualify as trauma. Instead, trauma is an event that causes a high level of stress which affects a person’s well-being in a lasting way. This can manifest in multiple ways, including mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually.
The traumatic event (or series of events) releases cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that are connected to the body’s fight-or-flight response. During a life-threatening event, these hormones are helpful, but they can become harmful if they occur frequently in the body. In fact, the way that the brain experiences pleasure and reward can be altered due to traumatic experiences. This can increase the person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Trauma can also lead to a person becoming “stuck” reliving the traumatic experience, leading to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe mental health disorder.
There are many types of trauma. Some major examples include:
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault
- Domestic violence
- Emotional or verbal abuse
- Parental neglect
- Bullying or ongoing harassment
- Accidents, like car crashes or fire
- Natural disasters
- Terminal illness
What is PTSD?
PTSD can happen to anyone because of trauma. The National Center for PTSD, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, has found that 6% of Americans experience PTSD at some point in their lives.
Signs that someone may be suffering from PTSD include:
- changes in attitude or behavior, typically in the form of increased anger or irritation
- problems sleeping or concentrating
- emotional numbness
- wanting to avoid engaging in certain activities or going to places that trigger memories
- flashbacks that cause them to relive the trauma
- nightmares about the event
Side Effects of Trauma
When someone suffers a traumatic event, whether as a child or an adult, they can experience a range of side effects as a result. These can be psychological or behavioral. Many people who have experienced trauma or developed PTSD may attempt to self-medicate these resulting thoughts and actions away, resulting in an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some common signs of trauma include:
- Dramatic mood shifts
- Erratic behavior
- Excessive or inappropriate display of emotions
- Ongoing fear, nervousness, or anxiety
- Prolonged agitation or irritability
- Lack of confidence (timidity)
- Eating disorders
- Avoiding triggers that may remind them of previous trauma
- Continually reliving the event
- Problems with how the person relates with others in their professional life
- Romantic and social relationship issues
How Trauma Can Lead To Self-Medication
Trauma can have a profound and lasting impact on individuals’ lives. It can leave people feeling scared, alone, and helpless. They may feel like they are stuck in a never-ending nightmare. To cope with the pain, many people turn to self-medication. They may abuse alcohol or drugs or indulge in risky behaviors. Even though self-medication can provide temporary relief from the trauma, it can ultimately make things worse. Individuals can become trapped in a cycle of addiction, increasing their feelings of isolation and despair.
How Self-Medication Can Lead To Substance Abuse
When people struggle with pain, illness, or stress, they may use self-medication to cope. This can involve anything from drinking alcohol to using illegal drugs. While self-medication may provide temporary relief, it can also lead to substance abuse and addiction. People who self-medicate are more likely to develop a tolerance to the substances they are using, requiring larger and more frequent doses to achieve the same effect. They may also experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to cut back or stop using the substance.
When individuals’ tolerance for their substance of choice increases, they risk overdosing. They may also engage in riskier behaviors to get the high they’re after. This can lead to a spiral of addiction that can be very difficult to break free from.
When someone struggles with substance abuse, overcoming withdrawal symptoms is one of the most difficult challenges they face. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and last for days or weeks. The discomfort and agitation caused by withdrawal can lead some people to abuse their substance of choice even more to get relief.
Trauma-Informed Care For Treating Substance Abuse
There is a difference between treating the trauma experience and the symptoms that come from the traumatic event. SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, advises a trauma-informed approach that seeks to recognize how widespread the impact of trauma can be and how it impacts the different pathways to recovery. This approach works to avoid retraumatizing the individuals during treatment while also educating patients, their families, and the professionals treating them about the signs and symptoms of trauma.
SAMHSA offers six principles of a trauma-informed approach to substance abuse treatment. They are:
- Safety: clients should feel safe while attending treatment.
- Trustworthiness: clients must be able to understand the treatment decisions that guide their care.
- Peer support: clients can engage with peers who are experiencing similar challenges during treatment.
- Collaboration: clients feel they can work with treatment providers on the same level, rather than feeling neglected or belittled.
- Empowerment: clients must understand that they can recover and heal from their trauma.
- Cultural issues: treatment programs should recognize that clients may struggle with outdated or stereotyped ideas about who experiences trauma and how it affects them.
Trauma-informed care is helpful for someone dealing with both a traumatic event and an addiction to drugs or alcohol because it acknowledges the way past and present situations have shaped the person. This approach shifts the focus from asking what is wrong with the person to asking what has happened to them. This change in thinking is important to provide the most effective treatment not only for substance abuse but for overcoming trauma in the person’s past.
Addiction treatment that directly addresses trauma can improve an individual’s outcome and increase their likelihood of maintaining sobriety. Better involvement and adherence to treatment aid the patients by empowering them to improve their health and by improving their long-term odds of recovery.
At Bridges of Hope, our treatment philosophy is based on a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing substance use and mental health disorders. Utilizing therapeutically proven, evidence-based clinical practices, we provide superior client care throughout Indiana.