What Is the Relationship Between Trauma and Substance Abuse?

Trauma and substance abuse often go hand in hand. There is likely a positive correlation between your struggle with addiction and the trauma you've experienced throughout your life. You may not realize this relationship exists. Substance use provides a moment of escape but does not fix the problem. 

To live a life of recovery, you can not solely stop substance use. You must tackle the root cause of why you were using substances if you hope to achieve and maintain sobriety long-term. Understanding your trauma and the relationship between trauma and substance abuse can help you improve your recovery journey.

How Trauma Impacts You

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an "emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster." Individuals typically experience feelings of shock or denial after a traumatic event. If untreated, they can also experience long-term effects, including flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, physical symptoms, dramatic responses to certain stimuli, and the development of mental health disorders. 

Many of these feelings are normal. Shock or denial are natural ways our brain and body process traumatic events. However, these same feelings can make it difficult for you to continue your life. Seeking counseling or mental health treatment can help you healthily cope with your emotions and reactions to a traumatic event. Unfortunately, many do not seek treatment. You don't have to be one of the many.

Self-Medication for Trauma and Substance Abuse 

When you are in the thick of substance use, it is challenging to rationalize how your experiences have led you there. No one plans to develop an addiction, but if you find yourself unable to cope with your trauma healthily, you may have begun to self-medicate. 

Self-medication occurs when an individual tries to manage emotions, mental illness, or physical pain without consulting a doctor. In most scenarios, people use alcohol or other substances to self-medicate. Self-medication can be a gateway to dependence on drugs and alcohol and substance use disorder (SUD). Substance use only offers brief relief from whatever pain or emotional turmoil you are experiencing. 

This means of coping only suppress your emotions—it is not a constructive way to manage internal strife. Seeking treatment is an excellent way to learn practical coping skills to manage your feelings surrounding trauma. Trauma-informed addiction treatment can help you overcome SUD and manage the after-effects of trauma without retraumatization.

Trauma-Informed Treatment

There are many ways to treat addiction. However, individuals trying to cope with past trauma may need trauma-informed treatment. Trauma-informed treatment, or trauma-informed care (TIC), "involves a broad understanding of traumatic stress reactions and common responses to trauma." 

You may experience different forms of trauma throughout your life. Trauma can develop from a one-time event or something repetitive and long-lasting. Some individuals may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are, therefore, uniquely susceptible to SUD. 

Luckily, successful trauma-informed treatment for trauma and substance abuse helps: 

  • Focus on your strengths to empower you in developing their treatment plan
  • Provides you with treatment options and allows you to decide which is best for you
  • Includes a collaborative effort between healthcare providers, yourself, and even family members 
  • Prioritizes your physical and emotional safety
  • Develops trust between you and your clinicians  

Many modalities implemented into addiction treatment can help you manage trauma. Seeking specific trauma-informed SUD treatment is the best way to heal from both.

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

For those reading and curious about PTSD, there are ways to determine if you or someone you love may be experiencing this disorder. 

PTSD develops in individuals who have gone through a "shocking, scary, or dangerous event." The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that the fight-or-flight response is a typical way to react to traumatic events. The difference between our normal reactions to trauma and reactions that lead to PTSD is that individuals with this disorder feel their fight-or-flight response on constant alert, even when no danger is present. 

Being in a constant state of hypervigilance is dangerous. It causes increased anxiety and can lead to health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease. 

Common signs and symptoms of PTSD include: 

  • Experiencing intense flashbacks or nightmares about the traumatic event 
  • Emotional distress and physical reactions to things that remind you of the event 
  • Avoiding people, places, or things associated with your trauma 
  • Having negative thoughts about yourself 
  • Experiencing memory problems or not recalling crucial facts about a traumatic event 
  • Trouble in relationships 
  • Hypervigilance or constantly feeling on edge 
  • Experiencing mood swings or feeling angry and irritable
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself 
  • The development of other mental disorders like anxiety or depression 

Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. However, if you recognize your symptoms, speak to your doctor immediately. 

The Dangers of Untreated Trauma and Substance Abuse 

If untreated, trauma and substance abuse can wreak havoc on your life. Untreated trauma can lead to sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and even more dangerous substance use. Additionally, untreated substance abuse causes symptoms that can persist for a lifetime and may lead to other life-threatening circumstances. 

A life free of trauma and substance abuse is possible. But it's up to you to take the first step. Reach out to NorthStar Transitions today to learn how we can help you achieve recovery. 

There is a clear relationship between trauma and substance abuse. Everyone experiences some form of trauma throughout their life. For some, trauma occurs as a single event, while others experience repetitive and long-lasting trauma. When you struggle to cope with trauma or have begun self-medicating, seek professional help. Self-medication with alcohol and drugs is a gateway to developing an addiction. To achieve recovery, we must tackle the root of the problem--trauma. Seeking addiction treatment and pursuing trauma-informed care can help you live a life free of trauma and active addiction. To learn more about the relationship between trauma and substance abuse, or to seek treatment, call (303) 558-6400 today.

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