How Trauma Impacts Recovery

Trauma and recovery can be complicated. It can influence so much of your day-to-day life you may not even notice it. But on the other hand, you may be very aware of your trauma and how it impacts your life, including its role in substance use disorder (SUD).

If you suffer from symptoms of past trauma, you have probably faced a lot of hardships. Trauma can impact your recovery journey, but there are ways you can help yourself. Entering recovery is all about doing the work to make your life happier and more manageable. Examining trauma is just one of the things you can do to achieve the joyous life we all strive for. 

Using Substances as an "Escape"

Before we look at how trauma impacts recovery, we must first dive into how it impacted your time in active addiction. Many people start using substances to "escape" their trauma. This can be very problematic.

When you use substances as an "escape, " you create a dependency on that substance to feel "normal." This dependency rewires your brain, creating a dysfunction that makes you crave more of the substance, thus creating a substance use disorder.

This is the danger that comes when you self-medicate. At times it can feel like the only time you have peace is when you are under the influence of substances. Many people who suffer from trauma feel this way. 

That said, substances are not the way to cure your trauma or treat it effectively. Drugs and alcohol can make the symptoms of your trauma worse. When you aren't experiencing the effects of a substance, the anxiety or depression associated with your trauma can return more severely than before you started using substances. 

Finding the Root of the Problem

When it comes to SUD and trauma, often, one is much more noticeable than the other. SUD has a lot more noticeable warning signs and symptoms than trauma does. While trauma may cause the substance problem, people often only treat the physical manifestation of trauma—SUD—and not the trauma itself.

You may not even realize that you are living with trauma, but you do notice your struggles with substances. This can lead to a variety of outcomes, including:

  • Repeated relapses: When trauma is not addressed, you will likely find that sobriety never seems to stick. You may try to quit repeatedly, but you can't seem to stay sober. This is because you don't know how to cope with your unaddressed trauma other than substance use. 
  • Sober but still destructive: Another outcome of not addressing trauma is that you can stay sober, but your life is still unmanageable. Your relationships may fall apart, you are easily agitated, and you still suffer from anxiety or depression. This is often referred to as being a "dry drunk."

Fire is the best analogy for the relationship between trauma and substance use disorder. In this analogy, trauma is the fire, and substance use disorder is the smoke. The smoke is often seen more and farther away from fire, but where there's smoke, there's fire.

The problem arises when you only try to stop the smoke, not the fire itself. No matter how hard you try to remove the smoke, the fire will create more. This is why to recover from SUD effectively; you must douse the source of the smoke: the fire that is trauma.

Treating Trauma

There are many ways to treat trauma. Depending on the severity, you may want to try more than just one method. Ultimately, it comes down to what works best for you. Though many options have been tested, studied, and proven effective, everyone is different. Therefore, different treatments may be more effective for you than others.

Talk Therapy

Seeing a therapist is a great place to start. Just having someone who can help them work through their trauma is enough for some people. Others find that a therapist is the starting point and works alongside other treatment methods. A therapist can recommend different types of therapy you may need.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

For trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has proven to be the most effective treatment. It helps you process trauma-related memories, thoughts, and feelings.

This treatment works by having you call to mind an instance of trauma while focusing on a back-and-forth movement, sound, or other sensory stimuli. This process helps your brain move distressing memories from one part of your brain to another, decreasing your distress. The sensory aspect of EMDR lasts for about 30 seconds, after which you will talk through the feelings with your therapist. Think of EMDR as a strengthening exercise for your brain to be able to approach your trauma. 

Other Methods

You can do other things to help treat trauma, like psychiatric medication or meditation. Whatever you decide, make sure it is the proper treatment for you. Then, you can overcome trauma and have a successful recovery. 

Dealing with trauma can be a difficult task. Relieving traumatic experiences or events can cause some people to feel overwhelming emotions and panic. As a result, many people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from traumatic experiences. At times, some people may find that they can avoid these feelings of distress through the use of substances. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can significantly help in these cases. Through this treatment method, clients can process their trauma in small pieces. This helps to decrease emotional sensitivity and allows symptoms to become more manageable. If you are struggling with substance use and trauma and are seeking help, contact NorthStar Transitions for further information at (303) 558-6400.

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