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Why Trauma Often Leads to Addiction

Traumatic events shape you. Whether it’s a childhood experience or something you faced as an adult, these situations change how you see the world and how you view yourself. It’s not uncommon to hear that someone who has suffered a traumatic experience now struggles with addiction. Too often, trauma leads to alcoholism or drug abuse.

Why does this happen? There is a deadly link between trauma and addiction. If you or someone you love has a substance abuse disorder because of trauma, that’s not the end of your story. You can find hope and healing, as well as freedom from the substance holding you captive.

Types of Trauma

Trauma is more than a negative experience. It’s an event or series of circumstances that has lasting effects on your mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual well-being. Trauma causes high levels of stress because your mind and body see this event as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline — the same hormones that handle your body’s fight-or-flight response.

In an emergency, these bodily chemicals can be valuable, but in high concentrations, they become toxic. Eventually, your body can no longer understand the difference between an actual emergency that requires a fight-or-flight response and your remembrance of an event.

Sometimes, those who experience trauma get stuck in a loop, unable to move past or process what has happened. This can lead to a severe mental health disorder called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While this condition is commonly associated with veterans returning from war or combat, the same physiological fight-or-flight responses occur in people who experience childhood trauma. Some people may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate and mask their feelings.

There are many types of trauma, with the most common being:

  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Rape
  • Domestic violence
  • Emotional or verbal abuse
  • Parental neglect
  • Bullying or ongoing harassment
  • Accidents, like car crashes or fire
  • Natural disasters
  • Terminal illness

While these are just a few examples, surviving anything where you felt your life was in danger can cause PTSD.

Signs of Trauma

People who’ve suffered a childhood trauma experience a wide range of side effects, both psychological and behavioral. Sometimes your mind can try to cope with trauma by covering it up, but the signs of the event still come out. Some of the symptoms you can experience as a result of a traumatic experience include:

  • Dramatic mood shifts
  • Erratic behavior
  • Excessive or inappropriate displays of emotions
  • Ongoing fear, nervousness or anxiety
  • Prolonged agitation or irritability
  • Lack of confidence (timidity)
  • Eating disorders
  • Avoiding things that remind you of your traumatic experience
  • Continually reliving the event
  • Problems with how you relate with others in your professional life
  • Romantic and social relationship issues

Those who sustain a traumatic experience in their childhood are also at an extremely high risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Addictions

The human brain is one of the most amazingly adaptive things on the planet. Thanks to a trait known as plasticity, your brain can respond and adapt to anything that you experience during your life. This ability plays into every single part of your life, allowing you to learn new skills and make memories as you move through the world.

Everything you do, both good and bad, cause your brain’s neurons to grow, change or even break, depending on the necessary adjustments that will keep you functioning. This skill allows patients with traumatic brain injuries to relearn skills like walking or speaking. The brain can, quite literally, rewire itself to allow you to continue functioning.

What does this have to do with trauma and addiction recovery? How does a bad childhood affect adulthood? Plasticity is also why the things you experience in your childhood typically follow you into adolescence and adulthood. They shape how you think, behave and react to people and situations. There is a clear connection between childhood trauma and alcoholism and other addictions.

This connection between child abuse and drugs occurs due to the fact that childhood trauma and maltreatment may be the cause behind abnormalities in the brain structure. These abnormalities can cause various problems with cognition and behavior. High levels of cortisol and other stress hormones common to childhood trauma impede normal brain development.

Trauma can create a variety of long-term mental health issues, including PTSD. As many as two-thirds of all individuals with addictions experienced some form of trauma during their childhood. These individuals may also model their substance abuse and self-medication on behaviors they observed in loved ones while growing up. These issues lead many to self-medicate, which provides the foundation for the link between trauma and substance abuse.

Dual Diagnosis: PTSD and Addiction

If you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, as well as an addiction to drugs or alcohol, this is known as dual diagnosis or a co-occurring disorder. While PTSD isn’t limited to individuals with a history of military service, anywhere from 35%-75% of veterans with the condition are known to abuse drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their experiences. Individuals with PTSD may use drugs or alcohol to manage their symptoms or handle their triggers, which may include:

  • Agitation.
  • Hypersensitivity, especially when loud noises or sudden movements are involved.
  • Depression.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Insomnia.

Depending on the symptom, the patient may decide to try and “cure” themselves through drug and alcohol abuse. This method doesn’t work and, eventually, they’ll develop a tolerance to their drug of choice, often leaving them worse off than they were before. This cycle facilitates the link between trauma and addiction.

Anyone who has a mental health condition and a substance use disorder has a dual-diagnosis — this includes those with severe anxiety, depression or schizophrenia. To treat a dual diagnosis PTSD, a treatment facility must be able to address both the addictive cycle and the underlying trauma that caused the addiction, which could include an analysis of all trauma-related triggers.

While treating these two things simultaneously is essential in the case of a dual diagnosis, getting to the underlying trauma or triggers will be nearly impossible while you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Treating Addiction and Alcoholism Caused by Trauma

Comprehensive addiction treatment and therapy begins with detoxification to wean your body off the substance in a medically supervised environment. Then, a compassionate team of addiction professionals can focus on customized behavioral rehabilitation. Ultimately, through trust and collaboration, you can move past substance use and trauma. As you learn coping mechanisms other than self-medicating, you’ll begin to feel empowered and strong.

While trauma may be a part of your past, it does not need to define your future. At Gateway, our trauma therapy program offers individualized treatment to give you the tools you need to break addiction’s hold. By treating trauma and addiction at the same time, we offer you the best chance of recovery.

Don’t let trauma and addiction impact one more moment of your life. Contact us today to learn more.

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