Trauma and addiction - depressed and traumatized woman contemplating life concept image.
Published On: August 7, 2023Categories: Addiction RecoveryComments Off on How Are Trauma and Addiction Connected?

More than ever, people are becoming aware of the links between addiction and trauma. But before we look at the interplay between trauma and addiction, we will define trauma and describe the signs and symptoms that may result from it. 

Understanding Trauma and Addiction

In psychological terms, trauma consists of the emotional response to frightening or intensely stressful events. For example, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is one of the more well-known trauma conditions, but trauma manifests in many different ways. Trauma typically comes from either physical danger or harm or emotional harm.

Addiction and trauma are often closely associated with one another for two main reasons:

  1. People develop a substance use disorder when seeking relief from trauma symptoms.
  2. Addiction may lead to behaviors and lifestyle changes which make trauma more likely.

Trauma can have lasting effects on nearly every aspect of a person’s life, including:

  • Mental well-being
  • Emotional well-being
  • Physical health
  • Social well-being
  • Spiritual well-being

The Symptoms and Signs of Trauma

You may be wondering how you can recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma within yourself or someone else. Trauma and trauma responses are complex. There are many types and sources of trauma, and people respond to trauma differently. 

You cannot definitively diagnose trauma based on symptoms alone, only a professional can do that. With that said, there are some signs of trauma that seem to be common in many survivors. 

The short-term symptoms of trauma usually appear within the first few hours or days of a traumatic experience. Long-term signs of trauma can surface weeks, months or even years after the originating event and may continue for a lifetime without treatment.

Short-Term Symptoms of Trauma:

  • Confusion
  • Arousal (fight or flight response)
  • Dissociation
  • Disorientation
  • Exhaustion
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Numbness

Long-Term Signs of Trauma:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories
  • Sleep disturbances or nightmares
  • Overreacting to minor incidents
  • Excessive guilt or shame
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Idealization or trauma bonding
  • Seeking relief from substance use
  • Seeking relief in promiscuous behavior

Bear in mind that the lists of signs and symptoms above are not complete and that different people may respond very differently to similar trauma. People may experience the short-term symptoms listed above long after the precipitating event(s). Long-term signs may appear relatively early too. These are just some signposts to be aware of. If you or someone you love is exhibiting more than one of these, it is worth exploring the possibility that trauma is responsible.

Does Trauma Cause Addiction?

While trauma does not cause addiction directly, there are undeniable links between trauma and addiction. Clinical research has found that more than 70% of patients treated for a substance use disorder also have experienced significant trauma, often in the form of an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). 

It is fair to say that the symptoms of trauma make it more likely that someone will develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. This most often happens when the person begins to misuse a substance, prescribed or otherwise, in an attempt to “self-medicate” or alleviate trauma symptoms. It’s also true that people whose lives have been consumed by addiction are more apt to find themselves in conditions that are conducive to trauma. This can become a vicious cycle and it is one of the reasons why addiction recovery is so important to people with trauma disorders.

Connections Between Trauma and Substance Use Disorders

Depression and anxiety are two of the most common symptoms experienced by people living with emotional trauma. Regardless of the cause of the depression or anxiety, people who suffer from these symptoms are more likely to seek relief from substances than the general population as a whole. 

This is perhaps the most common connection between trauma and addiction. Someone lives with depression or anxiety, perhaps caused by unresolved traumatic experiences in their past. It isn’t unusual for someone suffering from these symptoms to turn to alcohol or drugs to escape. 

That’s especially true in cases where that depression or anxiety hasn’t been properly diagnosed, much less treated. So trauma can affect a substance use disorder by creating enough discomfort that a person uses and drinks more than they might otherwise. The effects of untreated trauma can also make it harder for someone to put drugs or alcohol down.  

For people who use or drink, at least in part, due to untreated or undertreated trauma, it’s not just about “having a good time”. They are self-medicating in a sense. The alcohol or drug is their “medicine” for the symptoms brought about by the unresolved trauma in their lives. So trauma can make a substance use disorder both more intense and harder to emerge from.

How Recovery Can Help with Trauma and Addiction

The 12-step model of recovery is the most popular and widespread approach and the most studied and vetted to date. It may come as a surprise to some, but the 12-step program is considered an evidence-based approach and its efficacy is backed by research

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) the two original 12-step fellowships are focused on addiction of course. But there are several aspects of 12-step recovery programs that are also conducive to healing from the effects of trauma, they include:

  • Fellowship: The meetings themselves, and the people who attend them are a vital part of recovery programs and they offer support and camaraderie which can be good medicine for soothing the wounds of trauma. 
  • Identification: People with trauma need to feel seen and understood. Being in a group of people who’ve had very similar traumatic experiences to yours goes a long way toward that end.
  • Spirituality: The “higher power” concept is one of the elements of 12-step recovery that’s harder for some people to grasp than others. But it pays real dividends for both addiction recovery and healing from trauma. Learning to trust in a power greater than oneself can provide solace and strength when you need it most. 
  • Structure: The 12-step programs provide more than support and fellowship. They also provide a system for living. This framework can help people stay on the path to progress over time rather than reverting back to detrimental behaviors.

Does Addiction Treatment Address Trauma and Its Impact?

Some, but not all treatment programs are designed to help people recover from the effects of trauma and addiction. The dual-diagnosis addiction treatment we provide at North Jersey Recovery Center helps clients overcome a substance use disorder while simultaneously diagnosing and treating mental health conditions like trauma disorders. 

It’s also important to understand that developing a substance use disorder as a result of trauma isn’t a sign of weakness. Finding yourself dependent on drugs or alcohol due to trauma definitely isn’t something to be ashamed of either. Despite that, many people do feel shame over their drinking or drug use. 

This can be compounded by shame they may be feeling due to traumatic experiences. Sexual abuse, for example, often lead to feelings of shame. Effective dual diagnosis treatment that is trauma-aware can address both addiction and feelings of shame and other symptoms to help a person move past trauma over time.  

Trauma-Aware Substance Use Disorder Treatment

A person can receive first-rate substance use disorder treatment, but if they have an underlying trauma disorder or a condition like depression or anxiety that hasn’t been addressed, it will not simply disappear just because they are no longer using substances. In fact, the symptoms of trauma are likely to remain a risk factor for relapse until they are addressed.

For a person dealing with both addiction and trauma symptoms, receiving treatment for both conditions is absolutely vital to successful recovery. Undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorders are a major reason for relapse. At North Jersey Recovery Center, we offer trauma-aware treatment for substance use disorders. Our dual-diagnosis addiction care curriculum is informed by leading-edge thinking in the mental health treatment field.

If you or someone you love has a substance use disorder, North Jersey Recovery Center wants to help. Please contact us anytime at (877) 790-5873 to find out what we can do to help.