Drug Addiction and Trauma: Exploring the Link

Serenity at Summit, a New Jersey drug addiction treatment center, reveals the shocking risk factors between trauma and addiction.

There is a powerful connection that exists between trauma victims and substance abuse or addiction. Many people who have experienced a traumatic event or suffered ongoing trauma, turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with negative emotions. While this type of self-medicating often works – at least temporarily – to quiet the sufferer’s feelings and memories, it can ultimately lead to addiction, and that can be a recipe for disaster.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is broadly defined as, “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Perhaps this definition is intentionally vague because trauma is such a personal and subjective issue. Two people who experience the same disturbing experience may react in completely different ways. Trauma is really defined by the individual; it’s what his or her internal beliefs and sensitivity to stress dictate, not what a friend, family member or doctor diagnoses.

Traumatic experiences can include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect as well as other frightening events like military combat, accidents, bullying, natural disasters, or any life-threatening incident, whether experienced personally or witnessed. Trauma can also occur as a result of childhood issues such as growing up in an alcoholic or drug-addicted home, or with abusive mentally ill household members.

Trauma can cause feelings of extreme fear, helplessness, and hopelessness. The person suffering may struggle with anxiety and depression, and may even develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is no wonder that many trauma survivors resort to using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope.

The Relationship Between Trauma And Addiction

Research shows that there is a strong link between trauma and addiction. In fact, it’s estimated that over half of people who seek help for substance abuse or addiction have been victims of some type of trauma; and those numbers are increased when childhood abuse or neglect caused it. But the trauma-addiction relationship is not a one-way street. It is a cycle that perpetuates itself unless proper treatment is sought and received.

Trauma Is A Risk Factor For Addiction

Unresolved trauma can have a disruptive effect on a person’s daily life, making relationships, work, and school difficult. It can cause much more than depression and anxiety. A person who has suffered trauma may have flashbacks and nightmares of the event, panic attacks, negative memories, and problems sleeping. Because people who have been traumatized often attempt self-medication to help manage the distress associated with the symptoms of unresolved trauma, they are at risk of developing a drug or alcohol problem which may lead to addiction. They turn to drugs or alcohol to numb themselves from the flood of emotions and reminders associated with their trauma, to quell the relieving symptoms, or to be able to sleep.

Addiction Is A Risk Factor For Trauma

Trauma being a risk factor for addiction may seem logical because the desire to shut off the negative symptoms is so strong. However, the opposite is also true. Addiction can be a risk factor for trauma, as well. People with substance abuse issues are more likely to engage in risky behaviors (driving while using drugs or alcohol, frequenting unseemly places with sketchy people, promiscuity, fighting, or other dangerous behaviors) which increases the likelihood of experiencing traumatic events, including harm to themselves or witnessing harm to others.

Regardless of which comes first, the trauma or the addiction, people who suffer from both experience behavioral and emotional difficulties, and that makes it much harder for them to stop using drugs or alcohol. So a successful treatment approach must tackle this dangerous cycle.

Recovery For Dual-Diagnoses

When unresolved trauma and addiction are at play together, what began as one problem becomes increasingly complicated by a second serious problem. The strategy that was being used to cope will itself become so disruptive that treatment is needed.

Read on co-occurring Disorders here.

Sometimes people are unaware that they are using drugs or alcohol to cope with unresolved trauma. They may only remember parts of the trauma that they experienced (or not remember at all), yet they are experiencing problematic patterns in their lives, that they cannot seem to resolve. They may end up in drug rehab, or another type of treatment, but they will likely get stuck in a cycle of repeated relapse until the unresolved trauma is addressed as well.

Whether you are a trauma survivor who began using substances to cope and developed an addiction, or an alcoholic or addict who suffered trauma as a result, it is important for you to find treatment that addresses both issues.

In the past, it was thought that each condition had to be treated independently of the other, and they would be addressed at separate facilities. People with unresolved trauma or PTSD were sent to mental health professionals, while addicts and alcoholics were sent to rehab. It is now recognized that not only is it possible to treat both conditions concurrently, it is better for the patient to do so. It is not enough to treat the addiction without treating the unresolved trauma, and vice versa.

Many treatment facilities are now equipped to handle dual diagnosis patients; they treat a number of mental health issues while also addressing the addiction. Comprehensive treatment for both mental health and addiction issues is needed to lessen the chances of relapse. Without it, relapse rates are very high. Strategies for relapse prevention for a trauma victim will include learning coping skills for managing the psychological and emotional triggers for drug or alcohol use.

Some of the features of an integrated program for people with a dual-diagnosis are:

  • Consolidated care provided in one facility
  • An integrated treatment plan that may include psychiatrists, psychologists, addiction therapists, and other medical professionals who are trained in dual diagnosis care
  • Psychiatric medication if necessary
  • Relapse prevention education
  • Peer support from others who are also dual diagnosis patients

If you are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction and have unresolved trauma, please seek help and get started with treatment for both. The road to recovery is right in front of you, all you have to do is take the first step.

Tap to GET HELP NOW: (844) 326-4514