What’s the Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction?

Nearly 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced some type of trauma. 25 percent of American children and adolescents experience a traumatic event before they turn 16 years old. Often, traumatic events change the way we see the world and how we view ourselves. Trauma can also affect the way our minds work, making us impulsive and overly reactive to situations, circumstances, and people we perceive as threats. In fact, an estimated 8 million adults in the United States develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in any given year. Regardless of whether individuals experience trauma as a child or as an adult, most people who have experienced trauma look for ways to cope with the emotional, psychological, or physical distress they’ve experienced. Many trauma survivors turn to addictive substances like drugs and alcohol to help manage their traumatic memories.

Understanding The Effects of Trauma

Trauma is our brain’s and psyche’s reaction to disturbing events. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as the emotional response and psychological distress that follows a terrible or life-threatening event. Domestic violence, rape, and witnessing an act of violence are some of the most common traumatic events. Accidents, natural disasters, and severe injuries can also cause trauma. Sometimes, developing an illness or losing a loved one triggers a significant amount of distress, leaving us traumatized.

Because trauma is our emotional response to psychological distress, it is an individual experience. In other words, several people can experience a traumatic event at the same time on the same day and develop different types of trauma with varying degrees of symptoms. This happens because our brains are shaped by our DNA, the genetic recipe for our individual identities and everyone’s genetic predisposition to trauma is different. In other words, our emotional response to psychological anguish is our own. When we experience trauma, no one else can fully understand our unique response to the traumatic experience. Often, this overwhelming sense of loneliness causes trauma survivors to turn to drugs and alcohol, creating a link between trauma and addiction.

The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

Research shows that there’s a strong link between exposure to traumatic events, substance use, and addiction. According to Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study, children who experience 4 or more traumatic events are 5 times more likely to become an alcoholic and 46 times more likely to become an injection-drug user than the general population. Another study shows that a large number of veterans living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) abuse addictive substances and develop substance use disorders. Often, addiction is a response to past trauma.

At the same time, using drugs and alcohol can make you more likely to experience additional traumatic events, leading to a vicious cycle which leads to more substance abuse and so on. There’s also a connection between post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a trauma-related disorder, and depression, which frequently occurs among people with addiction challenges. Some behavioral experts even note a connection between the addicted and traumatized brain. Let’s explore some of these connections below.

Trauma Increases The Risk of Substance Abuse

Being exposed to abuse, violence, stress, injury, and other difficult events significantly disturbs the mind. This psychological distress often shows up in two distinct reactions: feeling very strong emotions or feeling very little. Trauma can also make you feel guilty or ashamed. When trauma leaves us with very strong emotions, we might feel anxious, paranoid, and terrified. When the opposite occurs, we might feel depressed, hopeless, and unmotivated. Both of those reactions can make us want to escape reality or self-medicate our pain, increasing our risk of substance abuse.

When we self-medicate, we’re trying to numb the pain. Untreated trauma can develop into PTSD, which can cause nightmares, unwanted memories, painful flashbacks, anxiety, paranoia, and depression. In an attempt to escape PTSD’s overwhelming symptoms, some women, men, adolescents, and even children turn to drugs or alcohol to “feel better.” When these substances give them a temporary “high,” they continue to use the substance. Eventually, their brain becomes dependent on the substance and they can’t seem to stop their consumption, triggering addiction.

Substance Abuse Increases the Risk of Trauma

Addictive substances like drugs and alcohol can impair our judgment. A recently published study showed a direct link between alcoholism and risky behavior. In fact, more than 25 percent of underage binge or heavy drinkers admit to driving while under the influence of an addictive substance. Driving, hitchhiking, and walking in unfamiliar and unsafe neighborhoods under the influence of drugs or alcohol can lead to chaotic situations and traumatic events. Using drugs and alcohol can also significantly increase the risk of accidents, injuries, violence, and sexual assault, which can further cause trauma.

Unfortunately, alcohol and drug abuse impairs our brain and body functions. As a result, traumatized individuals who already engage in substance abuse are less able to deal with the effects of a future traumatic event, making trauma survivors more likely to use more addictive substances to self-medicate their pain.

Trauma-Related Disorders Can Lead to Co-Occurring Substance Abuse & Mental Health Disorders

Depression is one of the most common co-occurring diagnoses in people with PTSD. Researchers have found that 48 to 55 percent of people with PTSD also have or have had depression. Unfortunately, both PTSD and depression are commonly associated with substance abuse. Between 60 and 80 percent of Vietnam veterans receiving treatment for PTSD also need treatment for substance abuse challenges. In addition to that, 1 in 4 adults with a mental illness such as depression also has a substance use disorder. As trauma worsens their mental health, individuals have a greater likelihood of developing a substance use disorder. Luckily, most addiction treatment programs offer substance abuse and mental health treatment, also known as dual diagnosis treatment.

Real Recovery for Real People

Here at Meta Addiction, we understand how trauma can lead to addiction. That’s why we’ve made it our mission to provide real recovery for real people. Our outpatient treatment programs allow you to maintain your day-to-day schedule as you recover from drug and alcohol addiction. In each of our programs, you’ll receive group and individual counseling, develop key life skills, improve relationships, and participate in behavioral therapy.

Trauma and addiction don’t have to control your life. You can change your life for the better. Let us help you get there. Contact us today at (978) 776-3206 if you or a loved one are grappling with trauma and addiction challenges.

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