Trauma and addiction are ever-growing issues in our country and the link between them is now more prominent than ever. Addiction usually does not just begin on its own — many studies have found that a person typically goes through something traumatic before falling into addiction. People manage their trauma in many different ways. While some are able to bounce back in response to traumatic events, others may need additional help and guidance to navigate through the abyss. The people who don’t seek help from family or professionals may find themselves self-medicating to avoid the mental challenges that they will have to work through.
What Is Trauma — And How Is Trauma Connected to Addiction and Substance Abuse?
Trauma is defined as any event or situation that an individual experiences that leaves them with long-lasting, detrimental effects on their social, physical, mental, or emotional health and wellbeing. Traumatic experiences that people may undergo fall into the categories of physical, mental, emotional, or a combination of the three. Unfortunately, everyone will experience some type of trauma at least once at some point in their lives.
Some examples of these types of traumatic events are:
- Physical assault. Being physically assaulted is traumatizing, especially in scenarios where you are severely injured.
- Sexual assault. Sexual assault has various forms, but the bottom line is that it is a nonconsensual sexual act.
- Natural disasters. Some examples of these are landslides, tornadoes, fire, hurricanes, or flooding and they often involve loss of personal belongings. The feeling of being unable to control outcomes in these scenarios can be devastating.
- Childhood abuse. Any trauma suffered as a child can have lasting consequences throughout a person’s lifetime. Childhood abuse is not rare, and it can take any form from physical violence to sexual abuse.
- Whether the bullying had taken place during childhood or in adult years, it can have long-term effects on a person’s mental and emotional health if left unaddressed.
- Domestic violence. When you are physically or sexually assaulted by someone that you personally know or live with, it can leave you with deep feelings of mistrust in future relationships.
- A fire that destroys your home or a serious motor vehicle accident can change your life in an instant, and for a long time after the traumatic incident.
- Terminal illness diagnosis. If you are diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer or other serious illness, acceptance is difficult and can have traumatic effects, so people may turn to substances for relief.
It is important to recognize that these traumatic events do not always produce the same outcome or reaction for all people. Some individuals have the innate ability to effectively cope and effectively work through traumatic experiences on their own, while others may have a more challenging time with the healing process. Some people are able to compartmentalize the trauma or often go ahead and seek professional help. But, when people are unable to successfully work through traumatic experiences, a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops, which can further lead people down the path towards addiction and substance abuse, if proper interventions are not in place, such as therapy or other forms of treatment.
How Can You Tell When You Are Experiencing Symptoms of Trauma?
While some of the symptoms can be obscure and hard to distinguish on your own, if you are having symptoms of trauma, you and others close to you may notice displays of the following:
- Dramatic mood swings, ranging from happy one minute to overwhelming sadness the next
- Irregularities in behavior
- Excessive or inappropriate displays of emotions to people you know or to strangers
- Ongoing feelings of fear, nervousness, or anxiety
- Prolonged agitation or irritability
- Eating disorders
- Avoidance of triggers and things that remind you of the event
- The continual reliving of the traumatic event
- Issues relating to other people in professional settings
- Problems with romantic and social relationships
With proper interventions and professional help, you can find a resolution to your traumatic experiences and begin the process of moving on and healing today.
Youth Trauma and the Link to Addiction
Various studies indicate that there is a direct link between traumatic events and substance abuse in the youth of our nation. Data taken from national surveys in the United States finds that 1 out of every 4 children and adolescents will have been exposed to a traumatic event or experience before they turn 16. Additionally, studies have revealed that 20% of American youth between the ages of 12 and 17 have or will develop alcohol or substance abuse disorders, as a result of early traumatic exposure.
Data also indicates that more than 13% of 17-year-olds in America have experienced some form of stress disorder at some point in their life, and there is a strong correlation between adolescents with PTSD and the future development of alcohol and substance abuse. The link between trauma and addiction is clear in this scenario. Early exposure to potentially traumatic experiences at young ages can develop into mental health conditions such as PTSD and be the gateway to future substance abuse and addiction.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The most common adverse health condition that develops in a person of any age after they encounter a traumatic experience is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition often develops when a person feels that they had lost control or had no control over the outcome of a traumatic situation, and continually relives or obsesses over the event. PTSD can develop in virtually anyone that has gone through a traumatic experience, with ages ranging from children and adolescents to those in adulthood.
Individuals who have post-traumatic stress disorder may use alcohol or other substances to attempt to manage their symptoms or to effectively allow them to cope with their triggers.
Examples of triggers include things such as:
- Agitated encounters
- Heightened sensitivity to loud noises or sudden movements
- A person, place, or object that causes a memory of a traumatic event
These triggers, and others, can result in symptoms of PTSD, including things such as depression, social withdrawal, and insomnia. Nightmares, flashbacks, and other symptoms are likely caused by unresolved parts of the traumatic experience.
PTSD and Addiction
The link between trauma and addiction is significant because a person who has difficulty coping with historical traumatic events has a greater inclination to be drawn to substance abuse as a means of escaping from reality. PTSD and addiction are the most common co-occurring disorders because the first condition (trauma) leads to the second condition (addiction) and one may not ever be resolved without interventions like dual-diagnosis treatment and therapy. Alcohol and drugs can act as numbing agents and allow for a false sense of relief from trauma or PTSD symptoms. This opens the door to substance abuse and addiction. Unfortunately, instead of reaching out for help, many people struggle with their traumas and will continue to abuse alcohol or other substances to treat their symptoms, which can include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Flashbacks to the event
- Anxiety and stress
5 Reasons Why Trauma and Addiction Make Such a Dangerous Partnership
Trauma and addiction so often go hand in hand, but this can be an incredibly dangerous combination, for many reasons. Let’s take a closer look at just why the combination of trauma and addiction is so troubling.
1. Childhood Exposure to Trauma Increases Risk for Addiction
Recent national studies have found a direct link between childhood exposure to trauma and substance abuse. Those who have experienced abuse at a younger age are three times more prone to abuse substances compared to peers with no previous exposure to trauma. Surveys also indicated that at least 7 out of every 10 youth receiving substance abuse or addiction treatment report having a history of trauma.
Exposure to abuse, stress, or injury at a young age can develop into mental health issues later on — including PTSD. Without proper interventions and therapies, this can develop into addiction in a child’s later years.
2. Trauma Easily Leads to Self-Medication
Drugs and alcohol often come to the aid of people who suffer from the stress of trauma and the impact that PTSD plays in their daily life. Self-medicating is a coping mechanism that allows people to diminish the feelings of overwhelming stress and anxieties, but often leads to dependence upon those feelings being taken away and the substances that accomplish this. This is the epitome of substance abuse. Continuous dependency and the use of drugs and alcohol will eventually transform fully into addiction and can have other consequences.
3. Addiction Can Cause Future Traumas, Making an Endless Cycle
People with addiction automatically put themselves at a greater risk for future traumatic experiences. In a sense, it is a continual cycle. A person suffering from addiction will constantly seek drugs or alcohol and could put themselves into dangerous situations that may result in new trauma. After a person experiences another event that is harmful mentally, physically, or emotionally, PTSD may develop and the ‘fix it’ phase begins again.
4. Trauma Makes It Difficult to See the Bigger Picture
It is difficult for someone with trauma and addiction to see their actions from any other perspective and it is not easy for people who suffer from addiction to be able to determine why or how they developed an addiction in the first place. When a person does not resolve past traumas or try to understand and find healthy ways to cope with their PTSD triggers early on, they are more likely to continue down the path of addiction. It is essential for people with addiction to see and understand the perspective of those around them, as this is the first step toward breaking the cycle.
5. Trauma and Addiction Can Lead to Comorbidities
Trauma and substance abuse go hand in hand and are often grouped together with other mental illnesses. Professionals in the field call two or more adverse health conditions together co-occurring disorders or comorbidities. The combination of trauma and substance abuse reveals the later health consequences of co-occurring disorders — they may lead to another mental health illness developing and may begin the dependency phase of addiction.
Treating Trauma and Addiction With Alternative Therapies
When a person receives a dual diagnosis from a mental health or addiction professional, the doors open up regarding options for treatment. Apart from going to treatment centers for help, there are many other non-clinical therapeutic options such as:
- Working out or exercising allows you to get your mind off of the trauma you experienced and provides you with a healthier outlet in place of substances. Try running, weight lifting, or swimming to increase endorphins.
- Yoga helps you practice strength and breathing — this will help to sort out stress and anxiety related to trauma.
- Music therapy. Find a favorite band, listen to their songs, and try to pick out different instruments within the music. Do this with several songs. Taking your mind away through music allows you to heal.
- Making and keeping friends that support the healthy habits you wish to pursue is essential. They provide levels of comfort that you may have difficulty achieving with professionals.
- Addiction groups. Meeting people who are going through the same issues that you are will help you to relate with others and effectively take steps to healing with a great support system.
Holistic Approach to Treating Dual Diagnosis
At Maryland Recovery, our holistic approach to treatment allows us to craft individualized, effective treatment plans that will allow complete healing for our clients. We specialize in the treatment of dual diagnoses like addiction and mental health conditions, such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and more. Each of our clients receives comprehensive, customized treatment plans. We determine their history through an initial assessment, which then allows us to set goals and apply treatment options that will be effective solutions for our clients.
Addiction isn’t a journey you need to take on your own. The compassionate staff at Maryland Recovery understand that the first steps to overcoming addiction can be the hardest. That’s why, when you work with us, you are never alone. We are committed to ensuring that you overcome the obstacles that keep you from enjoying your life and living to your fullest potential. You don’t have to live with trauma and addiction any longer.
Call us at (877)762-3766 or contact us online to get started on your recovery journey today.
*Editor’s Note: This article was originally published Feb 13, 2015 and has been updated June 6, 2021.
Dr. Bhalavat is Board Certified in General Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, and provides inpatient evaluation and consultation services at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital, Maryland Recovery Partners, and Citizens Care & Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Bhalavat’s background includes treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and dementia.