Trauma can have a long-lasting impact on a person’s life. Childhood trauma, in particular, can shape your thoughts, emotions, and outlook. Even a traumatic experienced that you faced as an adult can have life-altering consequences; it can change your view of the world and yourself. It’s not uncommon to hear of people who have suffered from a traumatic experience to be struggling with addiction.
But what is the connection between trauma and addiction, and does trauma cause addiction? If yes, then why? Figuring out the answer is the first step to helping yourself or a loved one break free of their trauma-induced addiction or substance abuse. Uncovering this complex connection can help you find the right treatment and start your life anew without any addictive substance holding you back.
If you want to comprehend the complex link between trauma and addiction, you need to understand what trauma means in its entirety. So, without further ado, let’s explore the meaning of trauma, its varied types, and how it can be linked with addiction.
The American Psychological Association (APA) describes trauma as an emotional response to an awful event, such as rape, accident, or natural disaster. Any time an individual fears for their safety, they experience a form of trauma. It can be anything that puts a person’s emotional or physical well-being at harm.
Whether it’s trauma from emotional neglect or domestic abuse, it can take a severe toll on victims. The fact that it affects people differently only adds to the complexity of trauma. Since it plays out differently, its effects also vary from person to person.
The stress from a traumatic event triggers the release of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which handle your body’s fight-or-flight response.
In a crisis, these chemicals can be helpful to you. However, in higher concentrations, they can have adverse effects on your body. They prevent your body from understanding the difference between a real emergency or crisis that demands a fight-or-flight response and your remembrance of a traumatic event.
At times, people who experience trauma find themselves in a vicious loop that they can’t seem to break free from. It causes them to develop a severe mental health disorder known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
This condition is commonly found in war veterans and people who experience childhood trauma. It often leads such individuals to turn to alcohol, drugs, or self-medication to mask their feelings or take the edge off, which establishes the connection between trauma and addiction as it can lead them down the path of a lifelong struggle with addiction due to their unresolved trauma.
Common immediate signs of traumatic events include shock, anger, and denial. However, long-term reactions can include:
Trauma is so much more than a negative experience. It’s an event or series of events that have a lasting effect on your emotional, mental, physical, and social well-being. There can be numerous types of trauma that can cause high levels of stress in your body.
Here are a few common types:
The connection between trauma and addiction is complex and different for every victim. Many individuals who have suffered from a traumatic experience turn to substance abuse and alcoholism as a coping mechanism. There are many substances that can make a user feel different sensations, such as a mind-numbing calmness or an inexplicable high that makes you feel empowered. These are sensations that a victim of psychological trauma can actively seek to drown out the noise or flashbacks of their experience.
A person who has suffered from a traumatic experience might start relying on benzodiazepines to feel relief from chronic anxiety. They can also turn to stimulants to get a kick of energy. Drugs can also make a person dealing with trauma feel like they can achieve their dreams, which they don’t feel confident enough to achieve without the drugs. People might also develop an addiction to opioids to experience the euphoria associated with them.
All victims of trauma have individual needs that they might seek to fulfill by using drugs, opioids, and alcohol. However, these needs can also push them toward addiction as they start believing that without drugs or alcohol, they will not be able to become who they want to be or fulfill their dreams. These individuals can develop a harmful reliance on substances, which can result in addiction.
Even though drug addiction and psychological trauma are afflictions that anyone can face, regardless of their age, gender, class, religion, or any outside factors, the intensity of the trauma and addiction can vary from person to person. For instance, an individual might suffer from trauma more intensely if they have significantly low levels of cortisol or other abnormalities in the HPA axis, such as:
These people might also suffer greatly if they have brain abnormalities in the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, or amygdala.
Moreover, an individual is more susceptible to drug addiction if they have a family history of substance abuse as addiction can be hereditary. Similarly, if you have friends who are addicted to drugs, you might succumb to peer pressure and start using drugs.
The human brain has incredible plasticity, i.e., it can respond and adapt to anything that life throws your way. This ability allows you to learn new skills and create memories as you move through the world. Everything you experience and do, be it good or bad, causes your neurons to change, grow, and even break, depending on the adjustments that your brain has to make to keep you functioning. This skill also enables trauma patients to relearn skills, such as speaking or walking.
But what does it have to do with childhood trauma and addiction? How does trauma cause addiction? Your brain’s plasticity is the reason why the things you experience in your childhood follow you into your adulthood. Your childhood experiences essentially shape your thoughts, behaviors, and reactions to situations and people.
The connection between childhood trauma and drug abuse becomes evident in people who had to grow up with alcoholic, absentee parents. It’s because individuals who suffer from addiction and childhood trauma might have modeled their harmful behavior, such as self-dedication or substance abuse, on the behaviors they observed in their loved ones while growing up. Their excessive use of drugs and alcohol in their adulthood can easily lead to addiction.
Other forms of childhood trauma, such as abuse, witnessing a tragic event, or witnessing domestic abuse, can also contribute to the development of trauma-related addiction and depression. A study revealed that people who have experienced five or more adverse childhood experiences are seven to ten times more likely to become substance abusers. This same study revealed that individuals with three or more traumatic childhood experiences have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, along with depression and heart disease.
Another study found that among adolescents (aged 15 to 19) being treated for a substance abuse disorder, 45.3% of females and 24.3% of males had a lifetime history of PTSD, which is five times higher than a community sample of adolescents. Research also highlights that about 60% of young people with PTSD go on to develop a substance abuse problem.
If you have PTSD along with an addiction to alcohol or drugs, it’s known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. According to APA, PTSD affects around 3.5 percent of U.S. adults annually, and about 1 in 11 individuals will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Even though it’s often associated with war veterans, PTSD isn’t just limited to people with a history of military service. People who have experienced a natural disaster, car accident, sexual assault, or terrorist attack can also have PTSD.
Here are some common, recurring symptoms of PTSD:
These symptoms can be extremely distressing and overwhelming. In an attempt to escape the symptoms of PTD, people often turn to drugs or alcohol. However, with the use of alcohol or drugs, the symptoms only worsen. For instance, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which will worsen your anxiety and depression while interfering with your regular sleep pattern.
Moreover, endorphin withdrawal plays a key role in explaining the connection between trauma and addiction and the use of alcohol or drugs to control PTSD. When a person experiences a traumatic event, their brain produces endorphins that alleviate pain and create a sense of well-being to cope with the stress. When the event passes, your body experiences an endorphin withdrawal, which is somewhat similar to the symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol and drugs.
According to research, most individuals with PTSD turn to alcohol as a means to replace the feelings brought on by the naturally-producing endorphins. However, the positive effects of alcohol are fleeting, which leads to increased usage. Hence, it increases the likelihood of people becoming chemically dependent on alcohol.
The more you use drugs or alcohol as your crutch, the more you will need them to numb your feeling. It’s because the effects of the endorphins will subside, and you will need more alcohol to escape your PTSD flashbacks. Eventually, your dependency on them will turn into an addiction, characterized by compulsive use of the substance, tolerance to it, and abuse of the drug in spite of its devastating effects. This vicious cycle establishes the link between trauma and addiction.
A dual diagnosis of co-occurring drug addiction and trauma can be challenging. It needs to be handled responsibly and professionally so as to not worsen substance abuse. The most effective treatment plan is care that is designed specifically to target both addiction and trauma. This type of treatment can involve medication and psychotherapy.
Medication will help treat some of the symptoms of the trauma, such as depression. It can also help to treat the addiction, depending on the type of drug the afflicted individual is addicted to. For instance, if you’re addicted to heroin, a practitioner can use methadone for it. Similarly, if you have an alcohol addiction, anti-addiction medications like naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, can effectively block the positive effects of alcohol, which will help you break free of the destructive cycle.
On the other hand, therapy will help you deal with the emotional damage caused by the trauma. It will help you resolve your feelings and move past the experience. The treatment plan needs to be handled by a compassionate team of addiction specialists and psychotherapists who can create a customized behavioral rehabilitation and help you overcome your trauma.
The initial consultation for eventual treatment should include questions that identify patterns of past and current substance abuse. When dealing with the afflicted individual, a mental health professional needs to be extremely sensitive and compassionate so that they can make them feel at ease.
The professional should explain the deep connection between trauma and addiction to you and help you discover the particular pattern that prevents you from getting your life back on the right track. The right treatment plan should include thorough education, vigorous psychotherapy, and support groups that can help you address your substance abuse problems. It should include interventions that are carefully coordinated and integrated to help you deal with both your problems simultaneously.
Since trauma affects everyone differently, the treatment plan for each individual needs to be tailored specifically to their needs. Ultimately, there needs to be implicit trust and excellent collaboration between the patient and the practitioners to help you move past your trauma and addiction. The right treatment can help you learn coping mechanisms other than self-medicating or substance abuse. It will eventually help you feel empowered and enable you to get your confidence back.
There’s no denying the connection between trauma and addiction. Your past traumatic experiences can lead you toward substance abuse and addiction as you attempt to drown out the noise, i.e., your emotions, thoughts and memories related to the traumatic event.
With that said, even though trauma might be a significant part of your past life, it does not have to define your future. Before it leads you down a one-way road to destructive habits, address your trauma and addiction by seeking the right treatment for them. After all, early intervention can help you address your problems quickly without needing to unpack years upon years of repressed feelings.
Let Coastline Behavioral Center help you address your trauma and addiction. Get in touch with our compassionate team to discuss the right treatment plan for you!