Connection Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

Connection Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

By In Addiction Recovery, First Steps
Posted March 9, 2018

Researchers and scientists have long tried to answer the question: What causes addiction?

Even now, there’s no clear answer. Factors like biology, genetic predisposition, and mental illness can play a role. But research indicates that there’s also an undeniable link between trauma and addiction.

As with the classic chicken and egg dilemma, causation is difficult to determine. Does trauma cause addiction, or does substance abuse make one more likely to experience trauma?

While more research is needed on this correlation, it’s clear that trauma and addiction have a close relationship.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience,” something that an individual struggles to cope with.

What constitutes trauma can vary from person to person. However, trauma may be caused by either experiencing or witnessing:

  • Violence
  • Bullying
  • Neglect
  • Death of a loved one
  • Accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Domestic assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Crime
  • Severe deprivation
  • War

Sometimes, trauma occurs with what we might consider common events, such as divorce or illness. Trauma may be the result of a one-time event, or it could be a consistent experience.

Typically, trauma triggers feelings such as:

  • Pain
  • Powerlessness
  • Confusion
  • Shame
  • Loss
  • Terror
  • Pain
  • Entrapment
  • Betrayal

And in some cases, experiencing trauma leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by ongoing negative thoughts, bad dreams, and stress or anxiety. Individuals with PTSD may be easily startled, have angry outbursts, and lose interest in previously enjoyable activities.

Children with PTSD are likely to be especially clingy with a parent, forget how to or be unable to talk, and wet the bed.

According to the recent National Survey of Adolescents, one in four children and adolescents in the United States “experience at least one potentially traumatic event before the age of 16.”

Trauma As a Cause of Substance Abuse

An individual who experiences trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Emotions like terror, pain, and hopelessness can be temporarily quieted with the use of substances.

The individual may then come to rely on the feeling of relief experienced when using substances, and an addiction is likely to develop. People who have experienced trauma also have a more difficult time recovering from substance abuse, because memories or emotions related to the traumatic event can trigger a relapse.

Research supports the idea that trauma is linked to eventual substance use, and this may be particularly true of childhood trauma.

In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of patients reported a history of exposure to trauma. And up to 59% of young people with PTSD eventually struggle with substance abuse.

Additionally, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that a child with four or more adverse childhood experiences is five times more likely to become an alcoholic.

Studies of alcoholics show that a history of abuse is much more common among individuals with alcoholism than the general population. For instance, the general population reports physical abuse rates of 8.4% and sexual abuse rates of 6%. However, alcoholics have experienced physical abuse at a rate of 24% for men and 33% for women, and sexual abuse at a rate of 12% for men and 49% for women.

Substance Abuse as a Cause of Trauma

Not only can trauma be a risk factor for substance abuse, but substance abuse can also be a risk factor for trauma.

Addicts are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as hitchhiking, driving under the influence, unsafe sexual behaviors, fighting, and placing themselves in dangerous situations. Naturally, this makes addicts more vulnerable to trauma.

Financial ruin, the disintegration of key relationships, and trips to the hospital are common for addicts and can also be considered traumatic events.

Studies indicate that adolescents or teens who are already abusing substances may have an even harder time coping with subsequent traumatic events. Even when controlling for previous trauma, studies found that adolescents with substance disorders are twice as likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event than their peers who do not abuse drugs or alcohol. This is due to the functional impairments stemming from long-term substance abuse.

Ultimately, trauma and substance abuse can create an endless and dangerous cycle. Trauma makes it more difficult to recover from substance abuse, while substance abuse makes it more difficult to recover from trauma.

What Does This Mean for Treatment?

Man with arms drawn trying to prevent a relapse

When substance abuse and trauma co-occur, a multilevel approach to treatment is necessary. Both the substance abuse and the trauma must be effectively addressed in order for recovery to occur.

Individuals should meet with a counselor or therapist to discuss not only immediate causes of substance abuse, but also previous traumas that play a role. Counselors should develop individualized plans identifying triggers that can lead to emotional dysregulation and substance abuse, as well as healthy methods to cope.

Co-occurring substance abuse and trauma may make recovery a more uphill battle, but achieving sobriety is possible. Here at The Shore we address both problems and can work with you or your loved one on an individual level. To speak with a specialist call 1-844-249-2590 or click here.

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