Trauma is a leading risk factor for substance abuse, and it’s very common among the population. Statistics show that 5 in 100 people in the USA experience PTSD in a given year.
Various studies point to a relationship between trauma and drug addiction, but how can we address these issues? Before considering treatment options, it’s crucial to discuss trauma, its different types, and how it can potentially cause addiction.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response your mind develops from experiencing a distressing event. These events can include exposure to emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, disasters, serious illness, and other similar overwhelming events.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma has a lasting effect on emotional, social, or physical well-being.
When you experience a traumatic event, it has a negative effect on your sense of safety, self-esteem, and ability to regulate emotions.
Types of Trauma
Aside from its different forms, such as physical, emotional, or sexual, trauma can also fall into three main types. These are acute, chronic, and complex.
Acute trauma is an isolated traumatic event that takes place for a short amount of time and is focused in nature. This includes examples like an assault or a car accident.
Chronic trauma involves a series of events that occur multiple times during your life. This can include repeated sexual abuse and exposure to war. Complex trauma involves exposure to various interpersonal and invasive traumatic events. Examples include abandonment, neglect, and repeatedly witnessing abuse.
Signs of Trauma
People who go through traumatic life events experience psychological and behavioral side effects. Even when your mind attempts to repress feelings surrounding a traumatic event, you’ll continue to display certain signs.
You may be prone to dramatic shifts in mood, excessive display of emotions, or persistent nervousness. Many people also have trouble maintaining relationships, feel timid, or become agitated because of the event.
How Childhood Abuse and Trauma Affects the Brain
The brain is highly adaptive and can quickly respond to things you experience in your environment. This ability allows you to develop new skills and respond to new situations.
This skill depends on how your neurons can change and grow to adjust your behavior. But how does this relate to trauma? How can experiencing trauma during your childhood affect your adult responses?
Your brain’s ability to change activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli is called plasticity, and it’s why childhood experiences can follow you into adolescence and adulthood.
But this happens due to physical changes that affect your brain. Areas of your brain that are activated during a stress response include the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.
Traumatic stress can lead to lasting changes in these core areas. Moreover, studies show that people who experience childhood trauma have an increased norepinephrine and cortisol response to stress.
How Does Trauma Affect Addiction?
Researchers have proposed multiple pathways to explain the link between trauma and addiction. Analysis of different studies shows a two-way relationship between trauma and addiction – which means that each can be a risk factor for the other.
Studying Trauma as a Risk Factor for Addiction
A common explanation for childhood trauma survivors engaging in substance abuse is that it helps them manage the distress of trauma exposure.
Based on the self-medication theory, you may use drugs and alcohol to deal with traumatic memories and intense emotions. Therefore, substances serve to numb the experience of any intense emotion, both positive and negative.
Studies show PTSD precedes substance abuse as teenage respondents start using substances after exposure to trauma. Additionally, exposure to traumatic stress can make it difficult to stop using a substance.
This is because reminders of a traumatic event may increase drug cravings in people with co-occurring trauma and addiction.
Reviewing Addiction as a Risk Factor for Trauma
Researchers have found that a substance use disorder precedes the onset of trauma exposure in adolescents. Some studies also show a direct link between alcohol addiction and risky behavior like driving under the influence, going to unsafe neighborhoods, or hitchhiking.
Furthermore, people with substance abuse habits are much more likely to experience traumatic events like getting injured or seeing someone else get hurt.
Evidence also shows that substance abuse can reduce your ability to cope with a traumatic event. This occurs due to the functional impairments that accompany drug abuse.
What Kind of Trauma Leads to Addiction?
The main reason people use drugs is to induce an immediate psychological effect. Alcohol and other substances can change how you feel by creating feelings of pleasure and eliminating negative feelings.
These rewards positively and negatively reinforce your drug-seeking behavior, encouraging you to continue using. Over time, this leads to drug and alcohol addiction.
Experiencing child abuse or any other traumatic event can dysregulate your stress system. And when you’re constantly in a state of anxiety and hyperarousal, taking substances can offer a feeling of escape and calmness.
Consequently, people who have experienced trauma like physical or emotional abuse are more vulnerable to drug or alcohol addiction. It offers them a way to eliminate intrusive thoughts and regulate their mood.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
When you suffer from PTSD and substance use disorder, you fall under the dual diagnosis category. Although PTSD doesn’t specifically affect veterans, studies show that 1 in 10 USA armed forces veterans use alcohol or illicit substances to manage the effects of trauma.
You may use alcohol or drugs to deal with PTSD symptoms such as hypersensitivity, agitation, insomnia, and depression.
People who experience physical trauma are often prescribed painkillers to manage symptoms of pain. Most physicians prescribe opioids, such as Vicodin, methadone, and codeine, but these are highly addictive and can lead to misuse.
When prescribing opioids, doctors usually give fixed instructions on how to take them. However, people dealing with physical trauma may take more than the prescribed amount to reduce pain. Unfortunately, this is a slippery slope toward physical dependence and addiction.
Compared to physical trauma, emotional trauma is more difficult to detect. Mental health professionals can detect signs like social withdrawal, low mood, and anxiety to determine when a person suffers from emotional trauma.
Emotional trauma can often lead to low self-esteem and self-limiting beliefs. Thus, you may turn to substance abuse to numb feelings of anxiousness or sadness.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Based on statistics by SAMHSA, childhood trauma leads to an earlier age of alcohol exposure. It’s also a major predictor for higher risks of mental illness, prescription drug misuse, and developing substance use disorder.
Experiences such as childhood sexual abuse can be invasive and lead to disturbing, intrusive thoughts. Consequently, adolescents and adults may turn to substances to gain control over these thoughts.
Getting Treatment for Unresolved Trauma and Addiction
While co-occurring trauma and addiction can make recovery difficult, it’s not impossible. Some of the techniques luxury rehab California uses to address trauma and addiction are as follows.
In cases of a dual diagnosis, such as when you struggle with addiction and PTSD, treatment will address your substance abuse and mental health disorder.
Most cases of substance use disorder occur due to mental illness, so helping a patient cope with their psychological symptoms can ensure better outcomes for long-term recovery.
Therapy is a crucial component in recovering from co-occurring trauma and addiction. In most cases, therapists employ cognitive-behavioral therapy to change your thinking patterns and encourage new coping behaviors. So the next time you encounter a stressful situation, you’ll use healthy ways to cope.
Here are some commonly asked questions about trauma and addiction.
Is there a correlation between childhood trauma and addiction?
Yes, trauma is a major risk factor for addiction. People who suffer from traumatic events may use substances to self-medicate.
What types of trauma can lead to substance abuse?
Childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, accidents, disasters, violence, war, and assault are all examples of trauma that can lead to substance abuse.
Can childhood trauma affect substance abuse recovery?
Yes, research shows that exposure to traumatic events can make it harder to stop using substances, reducing chances of successful recovery.