Addressing the Trauma That Often Underlies Addiction

Have you ever wondered what lies beneath the surface of addiction, and why countless individuals have fallen into its vicious cycle? For many people, the answer is trauma, which often acts as a catalyst for substance use. Trauma can be like an invisible wound that affects every aspect of a person's life, from their relationships to their self-esteem. Sometimes, the only way they know how to cope is by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. This cycle can feel impossible to overcome, but with the right support, healing and recovery are attainable.

The Profound Impact of Trauma

Childhood trauma such as neglect, abuse or the loss of a parent can lay the groundwork for a future of addiction. These early life experiences can lead to feelings of anxiety, abandonment, and low self-worth that we carry with us into adulthood. For many people, drugs or alcohol provide a temporary escape, helping to numb these intense and painful emotions.

Likewise, trauma that happens later in life can have a similarly devastating impact on a person’s mental health. Exposure to violence, sexual assault and other traumatic events changes how the brain processes stress and fear, keeping us stuck in “survival mode.” Substance use helps many cope by providing a temporary escape from this new reality. 

The link between trauma and addiction is not just anecdotal — it is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. Studies have repeatedly shown that individuals who have experienced trauma are significantly more likely to develop a problem with drugs or alcohol than those who have not. These findings highlight the crucial need for a comprehensive approach to treatment that also addresses trauma and other underlying causes of addiction.

A Familiar Story

Across the country, there are news reports of young people being hospitalized due to serious complications from substance use. Cardiovascular infections, ulcers, communicable disease, and kidney failure from intravenous drug use; overdoses and crippling withdrawal symptoms from opioids like fentanyl; injuries and accidents that happen while under the influence; the list goes on.

For many families in Colorado and beyond, these stories have become too common. As fentanyl overdoses continue to spike and the opioid epidemic worsens, more people are being affected by the harmful consequences of addiction and trauma. The CDC estimates more than 100,000 overdose-related deaths occurred in 2021, rising steadily over the last decade. Some of the most impacted cities include Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia. 

However, no state has been spared from these tragic losses. The Denver Post reports that while fatal overdoses in Colorado have declined slightly after a 54% increase in 2020, they remain at an all-time high as fentanyl continues to dominate the U.S. drug supply. 

The evidence of the opioid crisis can be seen in nearly every community. Drug deals are made openly on the Cherry Creek trail. Paraphernalia litters the sidewalks of city streets. Families struggle to support one another and heal from the lasting effects of addiction. Unfortunately, for many people, getting the help they need to recover isn’t always straightforward. After being treated for an overdose or other health emergency, the story isn’t over — most patients need post-acute care in a rehab facility that addresses their substance use and underlying concerns like trauma to begin moving toward a healthier lifestyle.

Trauma-Informed Care

Treating addiction without resolving the trauma that so often underlies it is like putting a bandage on a deep wound. Because they’re so closely intertwined, most experts agree that lasting recovery is almost impossible to achieve by addressing one but not the other. 

Traumatic experiences can cause insomnia, fatigue, nightmares, anxiety, changes in thinking and overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame. These symptoms may last for years and disrupt almost every facet of daily life, so it isn’t surprising that someone with a history of trauma might seek relief with drugs or alcohol. Substance use provides a temporary “fix” but adds to the problem by eventually making the symptoms worse and harder to overcome.

That’s why trying to treat addiction while ignoring underlying concerns like trauma often leads to relapse. The issues that cause someone to self-medicate in the first place will still be there once they’re discharged. Without resolving the trauma and developing the coping skills to manage difficult emotions more effectively, long-term sobriety often remains out of reach. 

Trauma-informed care seeks to change that by recognizing and responding to the effects of trauma in a person’s life. It provides a complete look at the role trauma plays in substance use and utilizes a holistic approach that views trauma-related symptoms and behaviors as an individual’s best attempt to manage or cope with traumatic experiences. 

The Path Forward

Countless families across the country have found themselves facing the unimaginable pain and heartache that comes with having a loved one struggle with addiction. The need for a trauma-informed approach to addiction recovery has never been more evident.

Such an approach requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about and treat substance use disorders. It requires recognizing that addiction is not a lack of willpower or some moral failing, but rather a complex and multifaceted condition that is often deeply rooted in trauma.

Furthermore, it requires acknowledging that the path to recovery is often not a linear one. For many people, there will be ups and downs, successes, and setbacks. But with the right support and trauma-informed treatment, lasting recovery is possible.

At NorthStar Transitions, our goal is to provide individuals with the tools they need to process and heal from their trauma while also addressing the addiction itself. This requires a collaborative effort between our mental health professionals, addiction specialists and the individual in recovery, all working together to promote hope and healing from addiction. We offer a variety of treatment programs that go above and beyond the industry standard to help clients tackle their substance use and underlying mental health concerns simultaneously, utilizing a variety of methods such as individual and group therapy, family therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), holistic therapies, outdoor activities, relapse prevention and more. Our high staff-to-client ratio ensures that each individual receives the attention and support they need to achieve lasting recovery and build a healthier, happier and substance-free lifestyle. 

Get Help Today

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use and the effects of past trauma, know that you are not alone. NorthStar Transitions is here to help. Our compassionate team of professionals specializes in trauma-informed care, providing the tools and support needed to heal from trauma and overcome addiction. Contact us today to learn more about our programs and how they can help you or a loved one take the first step toward recovery. Don't wait — reach out today by contacting us or calling us at 866-407-2240.

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