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The struggle of trauma and addiction is common and well understood in the behavioral health industry. The devastating aftermath of a traumatic event or traumatic experience drives many people to self medicate and develop a problem with addiction or alcoholism. The two conditions of trauma and addiction must be treated individually and with different approaches, but fortunately is there is a solution. In this post we will discuss what trauma is, the different types of trauma, the signs and symptoms of trauma, how trauma leads to addiction and the methods used to treat both addiction and trauma.

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

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

How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction

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? What should you know about addiction and childhood trauma? 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.

Trauma, PTSD and Addiction

PTSD is a common condition associated with trauma. 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. 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 or Alcoholism Caused by Trauma

Since the relationship of trauma and addiction have been commonly identified within the addiction treatment industry, several approaches have been found to be effective. Addiction treatment facilities now condition and train their treatment teams to be able to offer what is now called “trauma informed care.” This is an organization wide philosophy and approach that enables patients to feel safe and secure while going through the treatment process.

While there are many therapeutic modalities used in treating trauma the most common include EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, CPT or Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy. Additionally, medications are used in tandem with therapies and these include sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine and venlafaxine.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or substance abuse issues, TRUE is here to help. Our talented and compassionate team has decades of experience. Get in touch with us today and get started on the path to long-term successful recovery.