Trauma: what is it, how does it affect us in the long run, and what types of events do we consider traumatic? Trauma is a word you may be familiar with. Perhaps, you have heard the term “trauma-informed care.” Maybe last week, your friend shared with you how traumatic their breakup was. We hear the word trauma more often now than ever before, as individuals who have experienced trauma and the clinicians that treat trauma are providing more education and research daily that talks about it. What exactly is trauma?
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to a threatening event and is often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Often, people think of veterans when they think of PTSD, but everyone, in any environment, is susceptible to PTSD. Trauma and its successors can occur in scary situations, including car accidents, abuse, assault (verbal, physical, sexual), or natural disasters. PTSD and trauma occur when an individual’s body and mind feel trapped in a life-threatening situation.
What Are the Effects of Trauma?
Trauma affects all aspects of a person: physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. Trauma changes the brain. Research shows that there is a notable link between trauma and addiction.
When an individual is placed in an environment that is physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening, high levels of stress are created. This stress leads to the body releasing cortisol and adrenaline—the hormones that control your fight-or-flight response. When in an emergency, such as being chased by an attacker, your fight-or-flight response is doing its job.
The traumatic event can result in high doses of cortisol and adrenaline releasing in non-threatening environments, where the body and mind are unable to determine if the environment–both physical and emotional–is safe. Some trauma survivors may become locked in a cycle of experiencing trauma symptoms in everyday life, which can result in PTSD.
What Does Trauma Look Like?
Some symptoms of trauma are poor distress tolerance, fear, anxiety, agitation, anger, isolation, emotional dysphoria, hypersensitivity to loud noises or quick movements, depression, insomnia, disordered eating, avoiding things that bring up painful memories, and reliving the traumatic event.
When we encounter traumatic events, our mind and body re-calibrate, which can lead to abnormalities in the brain. This reaction can lead to different psychosocial, cognitive, and even physical issues, or any behavior that is a “trauma response”–an abnormal response to a situation caused by the effects of trauma or PTSD.
Individuals who have experienced trauma often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to mask the symptoms. While the mind often tries to cope with trauma by burying it, the signs and symptoms will still surface. Individuals who experienced trauma as a child are at an extraordinarily high risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction.
How Can Trauma Lead to Addiction?
The trauma and addiction relationship could be huge. After trauma, changes occur in the structure of the brain. Stress hormones are activated at a rapid rate, which can obstruct proper brain growth. Trauma can lead to a number of mental health diagnoses, including depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, PTSD, and substance use disorder (SUD). There is a plethora of evidence that trauma can be a gateway to addiction. In a lot of instances, trauma is the gateway drug.
With new data on trauma and addiction coming out, there is consistency in the research exemplifying how well over half of all individuals who have SUD report a history of trauma. Studies on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) show that an individual is most likely to develop SUD after a traumatic experience in childhood and adolescence.
When individuals self-medicate their symptoms of trauma with substances, they are laying the groundwork for a budding relationship between trauma and addiction. Once a person begins to use a substance to cope, they then build a tolerance. This tolerance snowballs into dependency and addiction. Keeping its victims stuck in a vicious cycle, substance abuse can come with high-risk behaviors, which puts the traumatized individual abusing substances at risk for re-traumatization.
Why Do People Cope With Trauma by Using Drugs or Alcohol?
There is no benefit to sobriety for people who are unable to cope with their horror, shame, fear, and loneliness. Drug or alcohol use is often not an attempt to obtain enjoyable experiences. It is an effort to obtain relief from their internal nightmare. When removing unhealthy coping skills, including substance abuse, it is imperative that a new, healthy coping skill is put in as a replacement.
For some, substance use may be the only thing they have left. Without another outlet for coping and processing, the trauma symptoms and addiction will only grow stronger. Recovery is less about “taking away” the substance of choice and more about building healthy connections, practicing healthy and enjoyable coping and activities, and acceptance.
How Does One Receive Trauma and Addiction Treatment?
The term dual diagnosis refers to an individual with both a mental health diagnosis and an addiction. Individuals with both trauma and addiction must be diligent in seeking treatment from a program that works in both areas. To break the addictive cycle, one must address the underlying issue: trauma.
Dual-diagnosis facilities help individuals address underlying trauma and triggers while also facilitating the addiction recovery process. These facilities will also assist individuals in learning. They’ll learn new, healthier coping skills they can use to address triggers and trauma responses.
The role of addiction in one’s life, and its relationship to trauma, may be greater than we think. Traumatic events can lead to mental, emotional, and social hardships. For some, substance use may be the only thing they have left. Without another outlet for coping and processing, the trauma symptoms and addiction will only grow stronger. Recovery is less about “taking away” the substance of choice. Recovery is more about building healthy connections, practicing healthy and enjoyable coping and activities, and acceptance. Knowing where the trauma is coming from and the accompanying triggers is important in recovery when you are being treated for a substance or alcohol. We must understand our trauma and how it relates to our addiction if we want to fully heal. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, let Twilight Recovery Center help guide you through sobriety. Call us at (888) 414-8183 .