Learn About the Link Between Trauma and Addiction

No one sets out to become an addict. Addiction creeps up on people unexpectedly, especially when they use a substance like alcohol or drugs to cope with difficult life circumstances.

In movies and television, if a character is suffering, it’s only a matter of time until we see them drinking away their sorrows. Alcohol, and even some drugs, have become an accepted and even expected coping mechanism. But a person lost in suffering or grief isn’t often able to tell when their substance use has gone too far, and addiction inevitably follows.

For these reasons, trauma is one of the most common underlying causes of substance abuse and addiction.

What Causes Trauma?

Trauma is caused by emotionally overwhelming events in which a person is harmed physically and/or mentally. Even when an event does not involve physical pain, it can still be mentally and emotionally traumatic if the person comes close to death, or witnesses death or violence toward others.

In some cases, there is a single traumatic event, such as a natural disaster or physical assault. In other cases, a person experiences repeated traumatic events over time, such as in domestic abuse and bullying cases.

Here are some of the many possible causes of trauma:

    • Witnessing or being the victim of a violent attack
      • Sexual assault
      • Witnessing a homicide or suicide
      • Physical assault
  • Long-term neglect and/or abuse
    • Domestic violence
    • Child abuse
    • Emotional abuse
    • Bullying
    • Neglect of child or adult by primary caregiver
  • Natural or manmade disasters and events
    • Tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc.
    • War
    • Terrorism
    • Torture
    • Forced displacement (e.g., refugees)
    • School violence
    • Community violence (gangs, riots, etc.)
  • A major loss, betrayal or separation
    • Death of a parent, family member or close friend
    • Separation from a family member
    • Betrayal by a loved one, such as adultery or divorce

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

9% of Americans experience PTSD
In some cases, trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis that occurs when a person is unable to move on from trauma on their own. PTSD sufferers are impacted daily by thoughts and feelings related to the trauma they suffered.

While PTSD is most commonly associated with war veterans, the fact is that any human being, of any age or background, can suffer from PTSD. Approximately 3.5 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from PTSD, and it’s estimated that close to 9 percent will experience PTSD at some point in their life. PTSD is even more common in countries where war, poverty and social upheaval are common.

PTSD can affect not only the victims of violence, but also those who witness the violence and its aftermath, such as rescue workers and children who were bystanders.

Symptoms of Trauma and PTSD

Sufferers of trauma may experience some or all of the following symptoms to various degrees, depending on the person and the situation:

  • Persistent anxiety and fear – even long after the event has passed
  • Dreams and flashbacks related to the traumatic event
  • Difficulty sleeping and relaxing
  • Irritability and emotional outbursts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoiding talking about the event, or anything that is a reminder of it
  • Withdrawing emotionally and socially
  • Acting in reckless, dangerous or self-destructive ways
  • Volatile emotional reactions to minor triggers or being startled
  • Feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame

When Trauma Leads to Addiction

It’s worth noting that not all people react to traumatic events in the same way. Some people are able to cope and move on from past experiences on their own, or with minimal outside assistance. Others have difficulty overcoming the feelings and memories brought on by trauma. Thus, they need professional help to fully recover.

Unfortunately, many people who have difficulty dealing with trauma do not seek out professional help. In fact, the feelings of guilt and shame that often result from being a victim of (or witness to) violence and abuse often make trauma sufferers too embarrassed to speak about their experiences to anyone.

Feeling that they have nowhere else to turn, these sufferers may resort to using drugs and/or alcohol to numb their pain and escape unpleasant memories.

Treatment for Co-occurring Trauma and Addiction

For people who suffer from both trauma and addiction, it’s important to address both conditions at the same time. Since trauma suffers use their substance of choice to deal with their mental health symptoms, they won’t be able to stay sober for long unless the ongoing effects of trauma are eliminated.

The reverse is also true: Because addiction is also a chemical dependency, only addressing the trauma is unlikely to eliminate the addiction.

Although it’s important to treat addiction and trauma simultaneously, it’s critical for the treatment team to be especially trained on working with trauma victims in order to prevent re-traumatization.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is the most common technique used to successfully treat PTSD. It involves carefully exposing the trauma sufferer to memories and emotions from the trauma in a way that allows them to move on from the trauma.

It’s absolutely critical that the client feel safe and in control while going through the exposure therapy process. It takes a trained professional to do this correctly.

EMDR Therapy

EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It’s another highly effective treatment for trauma. The advantages of this type of therapy, as compared to more traditional talk therapy methods, are that it doesn’t require the client to talk about his traumatic experience, and it can be completed in weeks or months, not years. (Though, of course, it varies for every client.)

Like exposure therapy, EMDR requires establishing a safe environment and trust with the therapist as the essential first step. This helps the therapy be effective, and avoids re-traumatization.

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