Trauma affects every aspect of a person’s life, from how they view themselves to how they relate to other people. As a result, it’s extremely common for someone with a substance use disorder to have a history of childhood trauma or other traumatic memories. If you’re ready to focus on addiction recovery, here’s what you need to know about the connection between trauma and addiction.

Defining Trauma and Addiction

The Center for Health Care Strategies defines trauma as exposure to emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events. Trauma typically develops under one of these circumstances:

  • Experiencing or witnessing a single traumatic event, such as a natural disaster or sexual assault
  • Exposure to physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, child abuse or other traumatic experiences over a long period of time

No matter how your trauma begins, it changes the way you see the world, increasing the risk of addiction. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a chronic disease influenced by a person’s environment, genetic makeup and brain circuitry. The disease causes people to engage in addictive behaviors.

Types of Trauma

Physical Trauma

Physical trauma is a term used to describe serious bodily injuries. This includes broken bones, concussions and open wounds. If you experience this type of trauma, there are physical signs of it, such as bruising, bleeding, cuts and scrapes.

Emotional Trauma

Emotional trauma persists long after any bruises or cuts have healed. It causes people to experience persistent fear and anxiety, especially when they think about their safety and personal well-being. If you have emotional trauma, you may also have physical symptoms, such as insomnia or a faster heartbeat when you think about the traumatic experience.

Psychological Trauma

Psychological trauma is characterized by extreme stress, which makes it difficult to cope with everyday challenges. People with severe psychological trauma may avoid leaving their homes or limit their social interactions to protect themselves from further harm.

Childhood Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse childhood experiences are traumatic events that occur when someone is a child or an adolescent. Because children rely on their caregivers for a sense of stability, many circumstances can lead to childhood trauma:

  • Witnessing violence in the home
  • Experiencing abuse or neglect
  • Living with family members who have mental health disorders
  • Having a parent or other close family member in jail
  • Living in poverty
  • Witnessing the effects of personal alcohol abuse or drug abuse on trusted adults

Just because childhood trauma occurs when you’re young doesn’t mean the effects go away as soon as you turn 18. Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to addiction and mental illness in adulthood, demonstrating the importance of providing a stable home for every child.

Impact of Trauma on Mental Health

According to experts from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma has a major impact on a person’s mental health. People who have traumatic experiences are more likely to engage in risky behavior, develop chronic health conditions and struggle with mental illness. In many cases, trauma also affects an individual’s social relationships, increasing the risk for isolation.

PTSD and Its Role in Addiction

Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, develops in people who’ve had life-threatening or disturbing experiences. When you go through something shocking or scary, your body engages in the fight-or-flight response, a built-in mechanism that helps you protect yourself from danger. Some people seem to “freeze up” during this response, so they continue to feel tense or afraid long after the traumatic event ends. Some people with PTSD try to suppress their symptoms by drinking or using illicit drugs. As a result, there’s a strong link between PTSD and addiction.

Signs of Trauma and Its Effects on the Brain

People with trauma histories may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Persistent fear
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Confusion
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from social activities

Trauma also causes lasting changes in several parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. These changes are associated with chronic stress, which increases the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol is a hormone involved in the fight-or-flight response.

Coping Mechanisms and Substance Abuse

Many people with trauma histories engage in substance abuse as a coping mechanism. They may drink or use drugs to forget about childhood abuse, emotional abuse, neglect or other traumatic experiences. Over time, occasional substance use may evolve into a more serious substance use disorder.

Self-Medicating Emotional Pain

Self-medication is a natural response to emotional pain, but it just masks the symptoms instead of addressing them directly. If you’ve been drinking or using drugs to suppress your stress response, it’s time to seek treatment for substance dependence.

The Cycle of Trauma and Addiction

Trauma and addiction occur in a predictable cycle. People drink or use drugs to forget about their traumatic experiences, leading them to develop serious addictions. When you have an addiction, you’re more likely to engage in risky behavior, increasing your risk for additional trauma. If you experience another traumatic event, your substance use may increase, worsening the impact of addiction on your life.

Dual Diagnosis: Addressing Trauma and Addiction Together

Dual diagnosis refers to an addiction paired with at least one other mental health condition. For example, someone who has PTSD and an alcohol use disorder has a dual diagnosis. If this applies to you, it’s important to address both conditions at the same time.

Substance Abuse Treatment Approaches

If you’re ready to recover from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, it’s important to seek professional treatment. Depending on your history, you may benefit from eye movement desensitization therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy or another approach. Trained therapists have the knowledge and skills necessary to make an assessment and determine which method is best for you.

Resurgence Riverside has experienced, compassionate treatment professionals available to help you recover from your addiction. Contact us at (855) 458-0050 to learn more about our comprehensive treatment programs.

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