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Drugs and Alcohol Are Not a Fix for Past Trauma

teenager looking through a hole from a burned paper

Have you been using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the pains of past trauma? Do you notice a loved one resorting to substance use because of unresolved traumatic experiences? Trauma is understood as an intense emotional response to some life-threatening or dangerous events such as fatal accidents or abuse. Scientists and researchers have long found a causal relationship between traumatic experiential circumstances and the risk of addiction. They also find that two-thirds of people in treatment for substance abuse report that they had been abused during childhood. 

People tend to use drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate or to cope with life. Understanding the link between trauma and substance abuse can help you or your loved one make strides toward recovery.

Childhood Trauma Increases Vulnerability to Addiction

Some people’s trauma can be traced back to childhood. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse childhood experiences include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use disorders. The CDC estimates that over 61% of American adults have had at least one adverse childhood experience. Similarly, they estimate that children who experienced trauma are more likely to suffer from alcoholism as a way of self-medicating. For children, traumatic events like these not only introduce intense fear and toxic stress into their lives but also has the potential to rewire the brain structure. Both factors may contribute significantly to the risk of a child’s cognitive, behavioral, and social impairment. 

Adolescents and adults may also experience changes in the brain caused by traumatic experiences. The brain prepares one for certain experiences by forming necessary pathways that dictate your response to trauma. Trauma-related fear and stress may activate neuronal pathways that are strengthened under negative conditions. Other parts of the brain may shift too. For example, adults who are under toxic amounts of stress may have reduced volume in the hippocampus, which is key to learning and memory. Adolescents and adults who were neglected as children have a smaller prefrontal cortex, which is key to emotional regulation.

Chronic stress due to repeated exposure to trauma can also result in the mind sticking in a persistent fear state. When one finds themself in a hostile environment, their brains adapt out of necessity to survive. It may become a way of life even when the direct cause of the trauma is removed. People who live in this persistent fear state tend to socially isolate themselves for self-protection. They might find it hard to trust others and form healthy relationships. The risk of addiction is much higher when one is isolated, and the brain carries trauma.

Coping With Past Trauma During Recovery

Flashbacks of traumatic events can resurge even during your treatment. Some people might be triggered when talking with a behavioral counselor about these past traumas. They may experience dramatic mood shifts and erratic behavior. If someone is in the grip of past trauma, it is important to know that traumatic events have the power to shape people through no fault of their own. These situations have trained them how to see the world and themselves. Their physiology and self-image suffered under these past experiences. 

At the same time, it is also important to affirm that they can still be in control of who they are and how they live their lives. Think of it this way: trauma is a contributing risk factor to addiction, but not a deterministic one. The link between past trauma and addiction may seem unbreakable, but there are proven ways to recover from both. In fact, long-term recovery depends on addressing them together. 

Trauma Healing and Addiction Recovery Can Happen Together

The intertwined nature of trauma and addiction makes treating both of them necessary. When walking alongside a loved one whose past trauma has contributed to their addiction, keep in mind a few principles: first, create a safe space for them to acknowledge the interrelation between trauma and addiction. Second, recognize their need to be respected in voice and choice. Third, help them stay informed and optimistic about recovery. 

The many symptoms of trauma, including anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, anger, depression, and lack of concentration, are associated with the heightened stress and inability to regulate emotions. A trauma-informed treatment should then include programs that can attend to both of these needs. Some treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapyexperiential therapy, doctor-prescribed medications, support groups (like a 12-step group), relaxation techniques, and coping skills development (such as relationship skills).  

Have you been using drugs and alcohol to cope with past trauma? Do you feel powerless to change the past and thus your addictive habits? If you or your loved one has a substance abuse disorder because of trauma, that is not the end of the story. You can find hope and healing as well as freedom from both the trauma and the substance holding you captive. It is time to seek help from experienced mental health professionals. Schedule an appointment with a licensed mental healthcare professional or therapist at Laguna Shores Recovery. We believe in holistic and individualistic recovery, and we are here to listen, coach, and walk alongside you. We are a complete medical and residential facility offering a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, 12-step programs, and treatment plans. Call us at (866) 229-9923, and we would be happy to walk alongside you in navigating the emotional ups and downs during recovery.