In the U.S., 61% of men and 51% of women report having experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Individuals who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and have been exposed to one or more traumatic events are at a higher risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol that others who do not.
Many addicted persons use substances to self-medicate as they try to relieve symptoms of anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, depression, and other emotionally distressing symptoms associated with trauma. Many of these symptoms are related to increased stress and an inability to regulate one’s feelings after encountering an extremely stressful or life-threatening event.
Traumatic experiences are frequently the result of disturbing or catastrophic events, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, violence, extreme poverty, military conflict, or natural disasters. Childhood trauma can be exceptionally debilitating and have far-reaching and long-lasting effects. This may occur because persons whose brains have not fully developed may receive the full impact of an event(s) during a time when they cannot process what is right and wrong or make fully-informed decisions to help themselves or others.
Another reason trauma and addiction can occur together is the fact that the addicted person’s lifestyle may put them in risky situations more often than that of a non-addicted person. These include having sketchy acquaintances, living in dangerous neighborhoods, driving while under the influence, and other factors commonly linked to substance abuse may expose substance abusers to trauma such as violence, crime, and accidents.
There may also be biological elements that make a person more vulnerable to PTSD and addictive tendencies.
Therapeutic Elements of Trauma Recovery
Several methods for addressing a substance use disorder and associated trauma have been found to improve long-term positive outcomes. Elements of trauma recovery treatment typically include the following:
- Grief counseling
- Peer support groups
- Individual or group psychotherapy
- Exposure or desensitization
- Pharmacotherapy, or medications to treat symptoms
- Holistic practices, such as mindfulness techniques and yoga
- Coping skill development, including emotional regulation
Trauma-focused therapy is among the most effective ways to help individuals progress from merely coping to living fully and freely without the need to abuse substances. This approach recognizes that an individual’s substance abuse is used as a means of coping with devastating emotions, interfering with memories, fear, grief, or feeling unsafe or threatened.
According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), there are six primary trauma-focused care principles:
- Trustworthiness and transparency
- Peer support
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice, and choice
- Cultural, historical, and gender issues
Core Tenets of Trauma-Focused Therapy
1) Acknowledge the survivor’s need to be respected, informed, and optimistic about recovery.
2) Identify the link between trauma and addiction.
3) Cooperate with loved ones of the survivor and human services agencies to foster empowerment and resiliency.
The therapist works continuously while helping the individual locate connections and resources with supportive individuals and institutions. Trauma recovery enables persons to better deal with situations that contributed to past substance-using behavior.
Trauma-focused therapy for drug and alcohol abuse involves the following five objectives:
1) Developing a caring, respectful, and safe environment for therapy.
2) Promoting an understanding of the association between co-existing mental health issues, such as trauma, emotional disorders, and addiction.
3) Encouraging self-compassion and self-respect to fight back against the unavoidable guilt and shame associated with addiction and mental health disorders related to trauma.
4) Helping persons to develop healthier and more functional solutions to the problems they have identified.
5) Locating other supportive resources, such as groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Breaking the Pattern of Addiction
Addiction is not a disorder that people choose to have. Instead, substance abuse is often a desperate, albeit dysfunctional attempt to cope with depression, anxiety, stress, and flashbacks or temporarily numb painful thoughts and feelings.
Substance abuse may seem inconceivable to healthy people. However, individuals struggling with addiction need and deserve compassion and support to overcome this adversity and heal both physically and emotionally.
Addictive Behavior Is a Survival Strategy
Experimentation with psychoactive substances often starts as infrequent use that is enjoyable or exciting. Addiction is often developed subconsciously as a survival strategy. Moreover, the person is using substances to get through each day because of how it makes them feel or to avoid certain unwanted feelings.
Using substances is also a misguided way of running from disturbing memories that have become challenging to manage. Essentially, alcoholics and drug abusers alike are engaging in a very ineffective form of self-treatment in an effort to deal with unresolved distress, grief, and suffering.
Recognizing the Need for Treatment
Many people, at some point, make the decision to drink or use drugs occasionally and socially. They may or may not consider the experience of trauma when they do this. While most who drink moderately or use relatively low-level drugs like marijuana do not develop a severe addiction, many do.
Furthermore, those who have suffered through trauma or have severe emotional issues are at a higher risk of becoming an addict. Ideally, a person should feel comfortable in their own skin without having to numb themselves to escape thoughts and emotions. When one is unable to do so, it’s time to examine underlying issues that contribute to substance abuse.
A person may be dependent on drugs or alcohol that would benefit from treatment, even if they do not engage in substance use every day. Warning signs that a loved one’s substance abuse habits may need to be addressed using professional treatment include the following:
- Repeated binging or drinking or using to excess
- Drinking alcohol or using drugs for longer or more intensely than planned initially
- Feeling the need to be using substances to socialize
- Drinking or using drugs despite malaise
- Driving while under the influence
- Normalizing or romanticizing using behavior
- Drinking or using drugs to improve one’s mood
- Drinking or using drugs to help cope with emotions or numb psychological pain
- Loved ones have confronted the person who is engaging in substance abuse and state that it is concerning or damaging to the relationship
- Continuing to engage in compulsive, substance-seeking behavior despite adverse consequences
- Drinking or using substances upon waking or having a “hair of the dog that bit you”
- Attempting to hide alcohol or drugs and their extent of use from others
- Isolating, withdrawn behavior or socializing with a new group of friends
- Neglect of self-care, such as bathing or grooming, leading to a disheveled, unclean appearance
Getting Help for Trauma and Addiction
Often, years of using drugs or alcohol as self-medication have been somewhat effective at dulling traumatic memories. On the surface, the addiction may appear to be the only problem.
An individual who has suppressed traumatic experiences may be compelled to become sober, only to find other addictive or dysfunctional behaviors that eventually replace the use of alcohol or drugs. And, once these thoughts and feelings come flooding back, relapse is an imminent concern.
Persons experiencing PTSD and survivors of traumatic events need to have these conditions addressed concurrently in addiction treatment. By failing to include all factors that contribute to a person’s mental wellness, recovery from substance abuse is undermined, and the individual is more likely to return to active addiction.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery offer programs with an integrated, evidence-based approach to addiction treatment that simultaneously addresses all aspects of emotional health. If you are motivated to break the cycle of addiction and improve your emotional well-being, contact us today—we can help!