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The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

Written on October 17, 2021
The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

The link between trauma and addiction is undeniable, and becoming more and more widely accepted. Rather than looking at addiction as a moral failing or a bad choice, we are understanding that substance use disorders are a maladaptive coping mechanism for deeper,  underlying pain and trauma.

Everything you experience throughout your life has a way of shaping who you are. As the saying goes, life is 10 percent what happens to you, and 90 percent how you react to it. But does this really apply when you’ve experienced trauma?

Childhood is an exceptionally vulnerable time in life. There’s no denying that what we experience in childhood can shape how we see the world. These effects carry through into our adult years and impact our behavior — especially traumatic events. This is where the link between trauma and addiction becomes all too common.

It is important for those struggling with addiction, as well as those supporting them, to better understand the link between trauma and addiction.

What Are the Different Types of Trauma?

trauma-and-addictionYou don’t have to experience childhood trauma to develop a substance abuse dependency. Traumatic events can take place in any phase of your life and shape your reality. But most of the time, it’s childhood trauma that tends to run the deepest.

The reality is that all too often trauma leads to addiction as a means of escapism or as a coping mechanism. Although, the link can be a little more complicated than this.

So, how exactly do we define trauma?

It’s far more than a negative experience. Trauma encapsulates a series of events or circumstances that have a long-lasting impact. Ultimately, this can affect a person’s emotional, mental, and physical health. Traumatic life events manifest themselves as stress that both the body and mind view as life-threatening.

This means that many people who live with trauma live in ”flight or fight” mode. This is due to raised levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are amazingly beneficial in emergency situations. But over the long term, raised levels of these hormones can cause major damage.

In short, your body loses its ability to discern between real emergencies and mildly stressful situations. As a result, a person might get trapped in a loop of trauma that they cannot process or move past. And this can lead to mental health disorders such as PTSD.

What often gets missed is the distinction between what we call ” big T” trauma and “little t.” Big T trauma refers to major life events that have a traumatic impact, and it is what most people think of when they think about trauma. These are singular or repeated events where the person feels as though their life, the life of someone else, or their bodily integrity are in grave danger. The most common types of big T trauma that can lead to mental health disorders or the development of substance abuse include:

  • Sexual abuse/assault
  • Physical abuse/assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Verbal, mental, or emotional abuse
  • Childhood neglect/abuse
  • Coping with a terminal illness
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Surviving a severe accident i.e. a car accident, a fire, explosion, etc.
  • Spending time in military service/combat
  • Surgery

Little t trauma, on the other hand,  is much more nuanced. Nevertheless, it can have the same impact on our mental health as big T Trauma. Little t trauma refers to small events that gradually add up and can cause PTSD. Some examples include:

  • Growing up in a household where your emotional needs were not seen or met
  • Growing up with caregivers who suffered from addiction, mental health issues, or physical health issues
  • Poverty
  • Isolation
  • Chronic illness
  • Teasing, bullying, or persistent criticism by peers, teachers, or caregivers
  • A home where it feels as though there are things “not being said,” such as adults who refuse to talk about emotions
  • Shaming

Both of these types of trauma can have lasting impacts, and can be linked to substance use disorders as well as other mental health disorders.

What Does Stress from Trauma Look Like?

Trauma looks different from one person to the next. This is because we are shaped by our upbringing and taught trauma-and-addictionhow to deal with certain situations.

For example, one person might deal with their trauma by covering it up and suffering in silence. Another might use healthy coping mechanisms and therapy to process their trauma. While many others turn to substance abuse and addiction.

However, trauma impacts us all in the same way and will eventually begin to show itself. Some of the most common symptoms of living with underlying trauma include:

  • Trouble regulating emotions
  • An anxious, fearful, or agitated disposition
  • A withdrawn, timid, or unconfident demeanor
  • Issues with both social and romantic relationships
  • Black and white, “all or nothing” thinking
  • Low self esteem
  • Depression
  • Dissociation, or “zoning out”
  • Avoidance of the people, places, or things that remind the person of the trauma
  • Hypervigilance (overly vigilant)
  • Hypovigilance (under vigilant, or numb to danger)
  • Insomnia
  • Suicidal Ideation

Traumatic life events can also manifest themselves in other ways, such as eating disorders. It can also impact your behavior in terms of the events you choose to partake in.

I.e. if anything reminds you of your trauma, you might avoid it completely. Many people tend to have issues with how they relate to others in both their personal and professional lives, too.

Understanding the Link Between Trauma and Addiction

The human brain is incredibly adept at adapting to certain situations. But it also has a hard time forgetting certain reactions and behaviors. This is because the brain is capable of developing new neural pathways all the time — known as plasticity. This helps us to learn new things and adapt to life’s changes.

But some neural pathways aren’t always easy to forget or ”delete” from the brain. Especially those developed under traumatic circumstances. Unfortunately, these are some of the toughest neural pathways to process and unravel from the brain.

So, how does this relate to the link between trauma and addiction?

Plasticity is also the reason why we hold onto memories. Especially those experienced in childhood and traumatic situations. These memories can follow us into adulthood and eventually impact our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Plasticity is actually responsible for how you think and react to situations and the people around you. And when it comes to trauma, this can leave a lasting imprint on normal brain development.

Childhood trauma can lead to abnormalities in brain structure as it’s still vulnerable during early development. As a result, this leads to issues with cognition, behavior, and healthy brain development in adulthood.

Traumatic plasticity is directly related to addictive behaviors. And these behaviors often include self-medication, coping, and escapism from persistent memories and replays of a traumatic event. Research shows that traumatic life events can lead to a lifetime dependence on various substances:

”In this highly traumatized population, high rates of lifetime dependence on various substances were found (39% alcohol, 34.1% cocaine, 6.2% heroin/opiates, and 44.8% marijuana). The level of substance use, particularly cocaine, strongly correlated with levels of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as current PTSD symptoms.”

How Trauma Leads to Substance Abuse

In short, traumatic experiences disturb the mind. It leaves a lasting impact on the brain that’s difficult to forget. Generally, this psychological stress manifests in one of two ways: very strong, uncontrollable feelings, or feeling very little/numb.

Other feelings that accompany trauma include shame, guilt, anxiety, paranoia, depression, and hopelessness. A person may experience only some of these feelings or all of the above.

Either way, substance and abuse and addiction is usually the result of trying to mask, cover up, or numb this barrage of emotions. Many people rely on substances to escape what they are feeling, instead of facing their emotions and processing them.

Dual Diagnosis: Untreated Trauma, PTSD, and Addiction

trauma-and-addictionThe reality is that untreated trauma can lead to a number of mental health issues. The most severe being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Living with PTSD can impact your entire life.

It manifests itself in recurrent nightmares, sleep disturbances, flashbacks, paranoia, depression, dissociation, and anxiety, among other symptoms. As a result, this only increases a person’s risk of developing an addiction as a means of controlling their PTSD symptoms.

However, substance abuse only offers a temporary escape or ”high”, and a crash landing that’s even more difficult to deal with. The cycle continues as a person attempts to escape or mask their reality, only for it to lead to substance dependency.

The more you consume a substance, the more your brain and body crave the dopamine rush. In essence, this is what causes addiction. When PTSD accompanies addiction, it’s known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. For this reason, understanding the link between trauma and addiction is hugely important.

PTSD is not limited to those who have served time in combat or military service, but research by the Veterans Organization shows that

”Between 35-75% of veterans with PTSD abuse medications and alcohol.”

However, anyone with a history of trauma and PTSD is prone to the use of drugs and alcohol to manage triggers and symptoms of PTSD. Some of the most common include:

  • Sleep disturbances/insomnia
  • Withdrawal from social activities and interaction
  • Bouts of depression and anxiety
  • Frequent agitation, aggression, and irritability
  • Hypersensitivity to certain situations, i.e. loud noises, sudden movements, etc.

Of course, dual diagnosis is not something a person can diagnose themselves. It takes the help of a professional therapist to understand what a person might feel or experience due to their history of trauma. It is important to find a professional who understands the link between trauma and addiction. A good addiction treatment center should identify as “trauma-informed,” tailoring programming so that it both minimizes trauma triggers and also educates clients about the link between trauma and addiction, as well as gives them a path to heal from trauma when they are stable enough to do so, such as through EMDR or other trauma therapies.

Dual diagnosis is not only limited to PTSD and addiction, either. It can include other mental health disorders that result from traumatic life experiences. Some of these include depression, anxiety, bipolar, process addiction (sex addiction, gambling addiction, shopping addiction, technology addiction, codependency, and others),  and schizophrenia.

When it comes to the treatment of a dual diagnosis, it’s important to address underlying trauma as well as the addictive cycle a person experiences. A therapist will look at all the triggers related to a person’s trauma and how they spur on addictive behavior.

It’s of utmost importance that the link between trauma and addiction be addressed to heal on a deeper level from a substance use disorder. Treating addiction without treating the underlying trauma is the same as managing a symptom without addressing its root cause.

Looking To Overcome Trauma and Addiction?

The link between trauma and addiction is complicated and very personal from one person to the next. Trauma might not look or be the same for everyone, but it can often present itself in similar ways.

If you or a loved one is struggling to process your trauma or battling addiction because of it, Flatirons Recovery is here to help. We aim to walk alongside you and guide you through the process of healing your trauma while tackling addictive behaviors.

To learn more about the Flatirons Recovery process, get in touch with our team who will guide you every step of the way.