Did you know that trauma and addiction are closely related? Traumatic stress can cause mental health problems which lead people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Why does this happen? Understanding this aspect of addiction is the first step toward becoming trauma-informed.
What Is Trauma?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as “experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions.” Exposure to traumatic events is very common. Research shows that over 25% of men and 13.8% of women in the U.S. have experienced a life-threatening event that counts as a traumatic incident.
There are many different forms of trauma. For one, health professionals have identified a list of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as interpersonal trauma including child abuse, neglect, parental addiction, mental illness in the family, etc. Childhood trauma is associated with lasting PTSD risk, substance abuse risk, cognitive and emotional impairment, and other health issues.
Trauma may also happen as people experience intimate partner violence, sexual assaults, and human trafficking which are other common types of interpersonal trauma. Other forms of trauma can come from natural disasters, warfare, terrorist attacks, the refugee experience, and political persecution. Trauma may also emerge from a history of genocide, racism, or other forms of systemic discrimination. Research shows that thinking about historical trauma may also increase negative health outcomes, potentially leading to drug abuse.
How Do Traumatic Events Shape You?
Traumatic life experiences such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse may create lasting negative health outcomes. Even early exposure to trauma in childhood can increase the risk of psychiatric disorders in adulthood. The connection is largely due to a dysregulated biological stress response. On a behavioral level, people who suffer from traumatic stress may experience abnormal levels of fear, isolation, and anxiety.
Many people who experience trauma in life regain resilience and mental health. However, for some people, when traumatic memories resurface, sometimes triggered by new tragedies in life (also known as “cumulative trauma”), they can become overwhelmed, even if they’ve developed coping skills. This is when drugs and alcohol often become part of the equation as a way to erase trauma symptoms.
When Does Trauma Contribute to Addiction?
The connection between trauma and addiction is most obvious among teens and adolescents. For example, surveys of adolescents receiving addiction treatment show that more than 70% of patients had a history of trauma exposure. Some medical researchers even name this a form of comorbidity.
The road between trauma and addiction can also be a two-way street. Health professionals often warn about how trauma increases the risk of developing an addiction. However, addiction may also increase the risk of engaging in behaviors that put themselves or others at risk of experiencing trauma. For example, parents with alcohol dependence tend to introduce violence or neglect-related trauma to their children. Early exposure to parental addiction itself is also listed as one of the most common ACEs.
How to Intervene Before Trauma Leads to Addiction?
Health professionals recommend having assessment tools available to primary health providers. Such assessments need to consider many factors such as the client’s current level of safety, psychological stability, and readiness for further treatment. There is also a Traumatic Life Events Questionnaire (TLEQ) which is widely used as a self-assessment and self-report measure.
Medical experts have designed interventions after trauma exposure, including assessment, trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). These approaches are quite effective. For example, CBT can be used to treat PTSD with various co-occurring disorders such as panic disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Therapeutic groups may also be used for treating trauma exposure. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy can be used in a group therapy setting with people who are adult survivors of sexual abuse. The combination of group therapy with CBT is often more effective than nontreatment controls. The family and couples therapy approach can also help people with interpersonal trauma within close-knit relationship circles.
Treatment methods like these for trauma can be effective preventative measures to keep trauma from evolving into another or a worse condition like an addiction.
What Is Trauma-Informed Treatment?
With the understanding of how complex trauma shapes people’s behavior, health professionals advocate for a trauma-informed approach to treating people with substance addiction. It requires a higher level of care than traditional treatment. Health professionals need to prevent clients from self-harm while creating a sense of security at the facility. To prevent secondary traumatization, all staff need to be educated on cultural responsiveness and sensitivity to the complex phenomenon of trauma.
Trauma-informed care requires designing highly individualized treatment for clients and careful monitoring of their behavioral patterns. Every process needs to be guided by core principles such as safety, trustworthiness, transparency, collaboration, empowerment, responsiveness, and peer support.
Trauma is a complex phenomenon that requires informed and specialized care to treat. Because trauma can have lasting impacts on those who experience it, it can cause other issues down the line, such as substance abuse. People who have a history of trauma may turn to substances to try and numb out the feelings and memories of the traumatic experience. At Laguna Shores Recovery, we use a trauma-informed approach to treat addiction. Substance abuse is rarely the only problem, as it can cause and be affected by many other mental health disorders. If you or a loved one suffers from addiction as a result of past trauma, we can help through our customized treatment plans. Our caring and compassionate staff, many of whom have been through recovery themselves, is ready to help you today. For more information, call (866) 229-9923.