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Trauma

There is a significant correlation between trauma and addiction. Addiction can occur because of trauma and other mental health disorders related to trauma. In turn, those that suffer from a substance use disorder are then at a higher rate of experiencing traumatic events due to engaging in high-risk behaviors. Understanding how trauma increases the rate of addiction and how unresolved trauma can negatively impact an individual’s ability to stay sober is essential to helping those on the road to recovery stay sober and prevent relapse.

What is Trauma?
Childhood Trauma and Addiction

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as any event or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as life-threatening or emotionally or physically harmful. It is important to understand that trauma is relative to the individual. What is traumatic for one person may not be for another. Trauma can occur at any time in a person’s life. Trauma has lasting effects that affect an individual’s ability to function emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually. There is a wide array of events that could be considered traumatic, including but not limited to grief and loss, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, or a natural disaster. Long-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, difficulty functioning in social situations, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. It is likely that many of us have experienced a traumatic event in our lives at one point or another.

Mental Health Diagnosis’ and Trauma

The long-term effects of experiencing trauma at any time in a person’s life can lead to the onset of a mental health diagnosis. Trauma can have a great effect on how you feel about yourself and relate to the world around you. The implications of trauma often interfere with daily activities and functioning. Individuals who face ongoing stress and lack support from family and friends may be more likely to experience more severe symptoms and need additional help. The following are a list of mental health conditions all listed in the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5) created by the American Psychology Association; that may arise from unprocessed trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A mental health condition that develops following a traumatic event. People with PTSD often experience flashbacks and nightmares of the event, isolation, increased anger and irritability, negative thoughts or feelings, and constant apathy.

Depression: A mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest. Depressive disorders can cause sleep disturbances, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, trouble in focus and decision making, recurrent thoughts of death and suicide, and unexplained physical pain.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A mood disorder characterized by intense, excessive feelings of fear and worry about everyday situations. Often involves sudden feelings of intense fear or terror that reach within minutes (panic attacks). It is important to note that there are a variety of different types of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and some pertaining to specific phobias, all of which can become prevalent after experiencing a traumatic event.

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Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Evidence has shown that the correlation between trauma and addiction is particularly high for adolescents struggling with PTSD. One in 4 children in the U.S experience a traumatic event before the age of 16. Studies show up to 59% of youth with PTSD end up abusing substances. The prominent effect trauma has on a child’s adulthood can be explained by noticing that children have a lower tolerance to handling stressful situations than adults do. Children also rely on their caregivers as a source of support during hard times. If caregivers in the home are unavailable or are the source of the child experiencing neglect, abuse, or other traumatic events, family support is not an option. This leaves the child feeling hopeless and alone, eventually leading them to reach out for substances to self-medicate and alleviate the effects of being victimized at a young age. Not having the tools and resources to process traumatic events can leave people trying to handle symptoms with unhealthy behaviors.

Women and Trauma

Research indicates that women are twice and likely to develop PTSD, experience a longer duration of symptomatology, and are more sensitive to stimuli that remind them of the trauma they have experienced. Despite the understanding that women have greater risk factors and negative consequences due to trauma, many women struggle to seek help and support. Many women feel fear and a negative stigma about asking for help and processing the events that have happened in the past. Women are at a higher rate than men of experiencing sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. It is important to know that it is ok to ask for help. No matter what you have been through, you do not have to go through it alone. A woman need never feel ashamed of the painful experiences she has been forced to walk through. There is help and healing available to you.

What Can We Do?

With two-thirds of all individuals struggling with a substance use disorder have experienced some type of traumatic event in their life, it is important to understand that childhood trauma increases the risk of substance use in the future. Knowing this, you may be able to take preventative measures to help an adolescent in your life take a different path. In adulthood, seeking counseling services and support groups for individuals having experienced trauma will provide a safe space for both boys and girls to process their experiences in a healthy, supportive, and non-judgmental setting.

Regarding addiction treatment, choosing a program that offers dual diagnosis treatment for co-occurring disorders is a great first step to starting the healing process. Other therapies and modalities that are known to help heal wounds from traumatic experiences include EMDR therapy, cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy, and trauma-informed process groups.

It is never too late to start the journey of recovery. There is support and services available to you. No longer do you have to suffer in silence.

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