The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

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Many factors can increase an individual's risk of substance abuse and the development of substance use disorder (SUD). Some risk factors are genetic. Others pertain to the type(s) of environments an individual engages with as they grow older. Another well-known risk factor is trauma.

Awareness of the link between trauma and addiction is vital. It can encourage individuals with unresolved trauma to get the help they need to heal. Additionally, it can help individuals know what to expect from the recovery process from SUD.

Understanding Traumatic Experiences

Unfortunately, many people are misinformed about trauma and its lasting effects on an individual's well-being. Individuals may associate trauma solely with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may that veteran populations are the most vulnerable to experiencing trauma. However, it is important to understand that trauma is an almost universal experience.

Traumatic events are characterized by some or all of the following:

  • Fear or horror
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Serious injury to self or others
  • The threat of serious injury or death to self or others

While veterans are often exposed to traumatic environments and situations, traumatic events affect everyone. They affect survivors, medical personnel, family, friends, and relatives of individuals who are direct victims of trauma. Additionally, they can affect witnesses, whether witnessing a traumatic event in person or on television.

The Body's Automatic Reaction to Trauma

When faced with a threatening event, an individual's nervous system becomes highly aroused. The body's fight-or-flight mode kicks in, allowing an individual to either fight the threatening stimuli or flee from it. This automatic response is the body's natural survival mode. Once the threatening stimuli have been removed, it often takes time to allow the body to return to a baseline state of arousal.

Initial and Long-Term Reactions

The healing and recovery process from trauma is complicated. Every person responds differently to trauma and its effects.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, some common reactions to trauma include:

  • Losing hope for the future
  • Feeling distant (detached) or losing a sense of concern about others
  • Being unable to concentrate or make decisions
  • Feeling jumpy and getting startled easily at sudden noises
  • Feeling on guard and alert all the time
  • Having dreams and memories that upset you
  • Having problems at work or school
  • Avoiding people, places and things related to the event

Typically, these initial reactions may subside about one month after a traumatic event. However, some people may experience continuous internal alarms as a result of a dysregulated flight-or-flight mode. These alarms may occur when an individual is faced with any kind of stress. Further, some individuals may feel helpless or depressed when faced with no stress or threat at all. These are some of the hallmarks of PTSD.

Trauma as a Risk Factor for Addiction

As mentioned previously, trauma is a well-known risk factor for SUD and addiction. Individuals with unresolved trauma may experience a host of uncomfortable physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that can last well throughout their lives.

When these symptoms interfere with an individual's ability to function in their daily life, they may turn to problematic behaviors to cope. Unfortunately, it is common for individuals to adopt self-medicating practices as a result.

Self-Medicating Practices

Self-medicating is the use of alcohol or other drugs in an attempt to numb or relieve uncomfortable symptoms. This behavior is common for individuals with trauma and those with mental health disorders. Unfortunately, self-medicating practices raise significant concerns.

For instance, individuals who use alcohol and other drugs to cope are covering the roots of their issues. Instead, they are adding destructive toxins to their bodies and minds, which can worsen the root problems. When the effects of alcohol and other drugs wear off, individuals are often left feeling worse than they did before their substance use. This is due to the interaction of withdrawal symptoms with the lingering symptoms of trauma or other disorders.

Self-medicating practices inform the development of chemical dependency, SUD, and addiction. Eventually, individuals may feel unable to function without getting their “fix" of alcohol and other drugs to numb their dysregulated emotions. Overall, this can make treatment and recovery from trauma and mental health disorders even more complicated. Still, it is important to understand that recovery is possible.

Overcoming Trauma and Addiction

When faced with trauma, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests individuals spend more time with supportive loved ones. Individuals should also attempt to maintain normal, healthy routines for well-being. If the effects of trauma do not subside, it can be vital for an individual to participate in a treatment program for healing.

Many facilities utilize a trauma-informed treatment approach, assuming that all clients have endured some kind of trauma throughout their lives. This approach ensures that treatment staff is knowledgeable about the lasting effects of trauma and how it often informs substance abuse and addiction. Likewise, it influences compassion, empathy, and understanding from staff members to clients throughout the entire healing and recovery process.

Healing from trauma and addiction is a journey. However, it is necessary to ensure lasting well-being throughout an individual's life.

The link between trauma and addiction is well-known. Individuals who endure trauma are at an increased risk of substance abuse and addiction in an attempt to cope with the lingering effects of trauma. Self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs, however, can quickly inform chemical dependency and worsening symptoms of substance withdrawal. At Pathways Recovery, we understand that recovery from substance abuse often requires individuals to revisit and overcome unresolved trauma and its effects. We are dedicated to fostering a safe, comfortable, and compassionate environment for clients to feel empowered in overcoming trauma and substance abuse. We offer detox services in addition to residential treatment. To learn more, call us today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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