How Is Trauma Linked to Addiction?

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person staring out into the distance thinking about trauma and addiction

Traumatic events can shatter someone’s perception of the world, cause them psychological pain, and damage their sense of self. For many who experience trauma, the shock and hurt dissipates with time. Others, however, may start using drugs or alcohol to cope with the deeply-rooted pain that they feel, which may ultimately lead them to develop an addiction. This article will cover:

  • What is Trauma?
  • Does Trauma Always Lead to PTSD?
  • Does Trauma Cause Addiction?
  • What Are Signs of Unresolved Trauma?
  • How Do I Heal from Trauma?

What is Trauma?

There is a common misconception of what trauma is and what it looks like. For many, trauma is associated with soldiers returning from war, suffering from symptoms like emotional breakdowns and flashbacks. In reality, anyone can have trauma by experiencing a distressing or frightening event. Trauma is the emotional turmoil that affects someone after a jarring experience, and creates changes in the structure and function of the brain. Traumatic events include bullying, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, fires, natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and serious accidents. There are many other circumstances that can cause severe distress, and not all people will have the same reaction during or after a traumatic situation.

Does Trauma Always Lead to PTSD?

If trauma is not resolved and continues to cause inner turmoil and emotional discomfort, there is a chance you have developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder associated with prolonged distress after initial trauma. This disorder can lead to distrust in relationships and hypersensitivity to the world around you. Someone with PTSD might feel stuck in their the body’s natural defense mechanism to trauma.

This state of vulnerability can interfere with everyday life and cause severe stress, leading someone to seek relief through unhealthy coping mechanisms, including drugs and/or alcohol. In fact, half of those who have PTSD use substances to cope with their symptoms, and the three most abused substances by people with PTSD are alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine.

However, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some develop depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. Others are able to significantly heal from their trauma with the passage of time.

What are Signs of Unresolved Trauma?

You may be unaware of just how much past trauma has impacted you, which is why it is important to take a step back and honestly look at yourself, how you feel, and how you act.

Some common signs of unresolved trauma include:

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Feelings of shame or survivor’s guilt
  • Depression or hopelessness
  • Repeated flashbacks or nightmares regarding a specific memory
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling lonely or detached from others
  • Hypervigilance
  • Trouble managing emotions
  • Excessive worry
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain

If you experience any of the symptoms above, you may be confused as to how trauma could be the culprit, especially if you rarely dwell on the past. You may tell yourself that a particular event isn’t affecting you because you have moved on or “gotten over it.” But sometimes, no matter how much you may want to, you’re unable to move on as easily as you had hoped.

Does Trauma Cause Addiction?

Exposure to traumatic events, especially as a child, is a common factor leading to substance abuse. Experiencing childhood traumas such as school shootings, sexual abuse, or bullying, leads to higher rates of drug or alcohol dependency later in life. Children have a harder time processing trauma as their brains are still developing, and often suffer in silence because they are unable to trust adults after their experiences. Likewise, children of addicted parents who observe their parent’s unhealthy coping mechanisms during childhood are more likely to repeat those addictive behaviors in adulthood. Similarly, teens who have experienced a trauma report rates of addiction to substances at three times the rate of teens who haven’t.

At least 25 percent of adults who experience abusive or violent situations report turning to substances, and gender plays a significant role in raising the chances of developing substance use disorder (SUD) after trauma. Despite a greater amount of men experiencing trauma such as combat and physical violence, they are less likely to develop PTSD. Women experience more instances of sexual trauma than men, such as child sexual abuse, domestic violence, and rape and incest, which are more likely to have lasting effects. Victim blaming, the shame and survivor’s guilt following assault, and the misconceptions surrounding sexual violence prevent survivors from seeking positive, supportive mental health care. Studies show that young women report the highest instances of rape and are more likely to develop an addiction because of trauma than any other demographic.

To handle the discomforts brought on by trauma, someone may start to self-medicate with substances, whether it be to numb their pain, manage insomnia and calm down after nightmares, or unwind from the constant anxiety. However, this addiction only temporarily masks the stress that follows traumatic experiences.

How Do I Heal from Trauma?

Build a support network. For many, asking for help can be challenging, but it is the first step. You may hesitate to ask for help from family and friends because you don’t want to worry your loved ones. But know that reaching out to your loved ones shows that you are determined to take care of yourself. In addition, having peers that are healing from similar situations is beneficial to your growth too. Both virtual and in-person support groups can be found through local listings or online community forums. Besides no longer feeling alone, you will also be able to listen to those, who like you, need support and guidance during this time.

Seek professional help. Sometimes, talking to friends and family isn’t enough for someone’s healing. Reaching out in times of need can be daunting, but the importance of professional help can radically change your healing for the better. If you are pursing psychotherapy, having a therapist that specializes in trauma can make for a better treatment plan. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) are two treatment approaches used in helping someone better process past trauma to improve mental health. If your also need to address substance use as well, Seeking Safety is a recovery module for individuals and groups that focuses on the intersection of trauma and addiction.

Develop healthy coping skills. Healing comes from within. Teach yourself effective, healthy coping mechanisms that work for you. Research self-care methods and ways to practice mindfulness; try out some of these methods to find ones that work best for you. Create a list of the self-care practices that keep you centered and calm in times of need. Finding effective ways to distract yourself can include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, aromatherapy, yoga, safe place visualization, and journaling. Taking moments for acts of self-love is a powerful tool in recovery.

Appreciate your progress. It requires courage to come forward and talk about the damaging situations that you have experienced, but when you name the feelings that come up when you’re triggered and allow others to support you, you can recover. Treat yourself on bad days with acts of kindness and celebrate your successes. Healing isn’t linear, but paying attention to what works best for you will help you develop healthy coping mechanisms to achieve long term mental wellbeing.

Acknowledging and overcoming your trauma is not easy, but with the right tools and support, you can develop a healthier outlook on life. If you feel as if your past is preventing you from growth, reach out for help and find healing.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.