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The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

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Woman hiding her face from husband's fist, suffering from abuse

Trauma occurs when one or more events happens and leaves behind long-term impacts on a person’s wellbeing. In the United States, approximately 70% of people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. For some, it is possible to cope with the traumatic event on their own and with minimal to moderate effects on their lives. But for about 20% of those who experience trauma, they develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a disorder that makes it difficult for individuals to recover from the traumatic event or events.

When trauma is experienced, it can change parts of the brain and impact its proper functioning. Specific to trauma, parts of the prefrontal cortex are affected. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for many things, but especially emotional regulation. When a traumatic event occurs, the brain releases norepinephrine and cortisol. The pathways in the brain retain memory of the traumatic event, making it possible to continue to produce the same stress response that releases norepinephrine and cortisol. Too much or too frequent of a release of these chemicals can damage the prefrontal cortex, and in turn, a person’s emotional capacity. 

Types of Trauma 

Just because one person views an event as traumatic does not mean that another person will share that vantage point. However, the vast majority of people who have experienced trauma have experienced one or more of the following:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse and/or assault
  • Rape
  • Community violence
  • Domestic abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Mental abuse
  • Abandonment
  • Neglect
  • Bullying
  • Natural disasters
  • Terminal illness
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Racism
  • Homophobia
  • Xenophobia

Not only are these common types of trauma continuing to occur in towns and cities across the country, but all Americans are experiencing some level of trauma as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, sudden change in lifestyle, threat to physical health, loss of life, loss of jobs, financial distress, etc. are all occurring on a daily basis to more people than ever before. The rising rates of substance abuse and addiction that we are witnessing in the country can be traced back to many origins, however with this major event in full swing, more people are turning to the use of drugs and alcohol to cope.

How are Trauma and Addiction Connected?

Two-thirds of people with a substance use disorder have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. This does not mean that every addict or alcoholic has gone through trauma, nor does it mean that everyone who has been traumatized ends up drinking and drugging to the point of addiction. With far more than 50% of all individuals with a substance use disorder also having experienced trauma, however, it is clear that there is a significant connection between the two. 

As mentioned before, going through something traumatic can negatively impact the functioning of the brain. For example, think of when someone in the neighborhood is setting off fireworks. For most people, this can be an annoyance, but for the war veteran, it can be a trigger for trauma. Loud, forceful sounds can transport a veteran back to the front lines and kick start the stress response they had at that time. While they are not in danger, their body is saying they are, which is contributing to the impacts on the prefrontal cortex. If trauma remains unresolved, that stress response can continue to affect the veteran’s emotional wellness by disrupting areas of the brain. When emotional wellness is depleted, or when trauma has not been addressed, it can become easier to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. The more habitual the substance abuse becomes, the more likely it is that the individual will become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.

While the brain experiences changes that predispose a person to becoming addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, the lingering symptoms of the traumatic event can irritate, frustrate, and overwhelm. Some of the most common symptoms that are experienced after a traumatic event has occurred include the following:

  • Sudden, unpredictable mood swings
  • Low self-confidence
  • Heightened anxiety 
  • Hypervigilance
  • Reimagining the traumatic event over and over
  • Fear, nervousness, or paranoia
  • Avoiding people, places, and things that serve as reminders of the trauma
  • Erratic behavior

When symptoms as profound as these continue to build, the pressure that a person can experience can chip away at their ability to properly cope. For example, someone struggling with the effects of trauma might have regular panic attacks throughout the day and look to the use of alcohol or prescription pills to self-medicate themselves. Another person might grapple with low self-confidence, leaving them susceptible to being influenced by others who may encourage drug or alcohol use. When people with trauma start using drugs or alcohol, they often get a sense of relief for the first time in a long time. Unfortunately, that relief is only temporary, as the continued abuse of drugs and alcohol will only make the effects of trauma worse.

Treating Trauma and Addiction 

Turning to drugs and alcohol is not the answer for anyone who has lingering symptoms of trauma. The most effective way to manage co-occurring trauma and addiction is to seek professional help. Many rehabilitation centers offer specialized treatment that can address both the trauma and the addiction simultaneously. All medical and mental health professionals will work cohesively to ensure that the client is getting the most comprehensive care possible so that the active addiction can cease and the pain from the trauma can be identified and addressed. Because both issues feed into one another, this integrated approach is the most highly recommended method of care. 

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