The Role of Trauma in Treating Addiction

By The Fix staff 10/15/20

People who have suffered trauma often need to address its lasting effects before they can get a handle on their substance use.

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Many people with substance use disorder have trauma in their backgrounds. Photo 163556023 © Fizkes | Dreamstime.com

The word trauma is used today more than it ever was ten years ago. While some people might feel like the word is overused, many mental health professionals would say that we’ve just become better at recognizing the lasting impact that events — from losses to abuse — can have on our psyches.

Many people with substance use disorder have trauma in their backgrounds. Trauma causes residual lasting mental pain. If you don’t address the trauma, you might find yourself self-medicating to escape the mental pain. Although that might work for a moment, using drugs or alcohol to cover your mental pain will just cause more difficulties in the long run. That’s why it’s so important to find a treatment center that understands the interplay of trauma and addiction.

Understanding Trauma

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event. What constitutes a terrible event varies from person-to-person. An event that is traumatic for one individual might not cause trauma for other people, even if they experience the very same event. Anything from abuse to a natural disaster to an accident can cause trauma.

It’s normal to experience some psychological distress after a major event. Consider the stress that we all experienced early on during the pandemic. But, for most people, the stress gets better with time. If you find that your stress continues to interfere with your life, you might have trauma. Symptoms of trauma can include flashbacks, headaches and nausea.

Sometimes, trauma can evolve into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by lasting effects of trauma that impacts life. People with PTSD might have flashbacks or nightmares; they might avoid certain situations that remind them of the traumatic event.

The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

There’s a close connection between trauma and addiction. A 2019 study compared people who were getting treatment for opioid abuse disorder with healthy individuals. It found that the people in treatment reported more severe traumas and more instances of trauma in their lives. The study found that the more trauma people experienced, the more likely they were to experience addiction.

The connection can be particularly strong for people who experience trauma as teens or children. Among teens who needed addiction treatment, 70% reported trauma in their backgrounds. In addition, 59% of teens with PTSD go on to develop a substance abuse problem.

Research like the ACEs study — which looked at adverse childhood experiences — have solidified the connection between trauma and addiction. Even seemingly minor ACEs, like growing up with divorced parents, can increase the risk for substance use disorder later in life.

Treatment for Trauma

If you have experienced trauma or ACEs, and particularly if you believe you may have PTSD, you need to access a recovery center that is trauma-informed. Trauma-informed treatment centers have knowledge about the ways that trauma impacts the brain. They are able to help you address your substance abuse disorder, while also helping to control your trauma.

Of course, it is also a great idea to get specific treatment to help you overcome PTSD, if you are experiencing that condition. EMDR — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing — is a type of therapy that is particularly effective for treating PTSD. During EMDR, you recall your traumatic event while doing to back-and-forth eye movements. Scientists don’t understand exactly why this is so effective at reprocessing the traumatic event, but research shows that people make huge improvements in just a few sessions.

The Takeaway

Trauma is extremely common: up to 70% of American adults have experienced a traumatic event in their lives. Some people recover on their own, while the trauma lingers for others. Too often, people use drugs or alcohol to try to numb or escape the trauma.

Oftentimes, people need help to overcome trauma in their lives. Finding and utilizing a treatment center that has a trauma-informed approach to treating substance use disorder can help you understand the role that trauma plays in your addiction. Then, by addressing the underlying cause of your addiction, you’re better able to stay sober long-term.

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