The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

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Addiction and substance use disorders can often be connected to traumatic life events. Trauma is defined as an event or series of events that cause psychological damage. Traumatic experiences can cause long-lasting effects on the brain. These effects can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance abuse. This article discusses the relationship between trauma and addiction. It explains how trauma affects the brain and how it leads to addiction.

  • Childhood physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse
  • Parental divorce/separation
  • Divorce of parents
  • Deaths of family members
  • Loss of job
  • Physical illness
  • Sexual assault, or sexual abuse
  • Trauma survivor

Past trauma can also affect how you think about yourself and others. It can make you feel like you are not good enough or that people will reject you if they find out what happened. These feelings and behaviors can result in unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Trauma and Addiction

Recognizing Signs of Trauma

  • Dramatic mood shifts or erratic behavior
  • Excessive or inappropriate displays of emotions
  • Ongoing fear, nervousness, anxiety, agitation, emotional pain, or irritability
  • Lack of confidence (timidity), difficulty relating with others in your professional life.
  • Eating disorders, such as compulsive eating or compulsive overeating.
  • Continually reliving the event or avoiding things reminding you of your traumatic experience.
  • Romantic and social relationship issues, domestic abuse, and/or social withdrawal
  • Trauma victims having a traumatic memory

The Human Brain and Trauma

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect the Brain

The brain knows how to protect itself when faced with danger. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotional responses and memories. When exposed to something scary, our brains react by releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream. Past trauma affects stress hormones in the brain. Trauma from childhood or early adulthood can lead to long-term changes in the body and brain. These changes may be associated with increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol.

Childhood traumatic events affect brain development which could make it more susceptible to addiction. In childhood, the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until around age 25. If this brain area is damaged early in life, then there may be problems regulating emotion and impulse control later in life. Poor impulse control usually leads to addiction because people who are addicted crave their drug of choice so much that they cannot stop taking it even when they know it is terrible for them. They also feel an intense desire to use drugs again after they have stopped using them.

Childhood Trauma’s Effects on Adulthood Addiction

Stress is a normal part of an adult’s life, but it can lead to physical problems when you feel stressed out for too long. It can affect your relationships with others and your work performance. Victims of childhood trauma often experience high levels of stress in adulthood. Victims tend to turn to substances to cope instead of dealing with the stress in healthy and productive ways. Substance abusers typically do not see themselves as having any problem; therefore, they continue to use despite negative consequences.

Given appropriate access to and treatment support, many individuals living with the effects of childhood trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and addiction can make positive and lasting improvements.

What Does Addictive Behavior Look Like?

Turning to substances to cope can create a vicious cycle of addiction. A vicious cycle of addiction is when you use drugs or alcohol to cope with negative feelings. For example, if you feel sad, you might drink alcohol to make yourself feel better. But then you get drunk, and you feel even worse. So you drink again, and you feel even more depressed. You keep drinking until you are so intoxicated that you don’t care about anything.

An adult struggling with addiction may exhibit many different addictive behaviors to deal with emotional responses and psychological pain.

  • Emotional responses – are the wide range of feelings that we experience when we encounter something that affects us emotionally. These can be positive or negative.
  • Addictive behaviors – are used to achieve pleasure or avoid pain. They include substance abuse (e.g., alcohol abuse, drug abuse), gambling, shopping, sex, eating, exercise, work, and Internet use. This is related to a substance abuse disorder with prescription drugs or illicit drugs.

When trauma slides into addiction

The daily struggle to avoid trauma-related memories is exhausting, as many individuals living with the effects of addiction and childhood trauma can make positive and lasting improvements given appropriate access to support and treatment. There are skills a person can develop over time. The traumatic memories from a bad day can be hard to process even after years. A bad day can be caused by several things, including feeling fatigued or too busy, arguing with family or friends, or trying to meet unrealistic expectations. Our defenses are weakened when these all cause stress. When our self-protective barriers are lower, traumatic memories can surface when a person is relaxed. 

Healing From Trauma and Addiction

Dealing with your past trauma may be the key to breaking addiction. Depending on what type of addiction someone is suffering from, different treatment options and levels of care are available. Some treatments focus on helping patients learn new coping skills, while other therapies help addicts overcome old habits.

Addiction Treatment Options: Individualized Treatment Plan

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that helps people change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to improve their mental health. CBT can be used for anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, emotional abuse, and many other conditions.

Trauma-informed care is an approach that addresses the needs of people who have experienced horrific events and dependence in their lives. This includes managing the effects of trauma and addiction on physical health, mental health, social relationships, and spiritual well-being.

Behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing behavior rather than thinking about problems. It can be used for treating anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.

Addictions are prevalent among adults today. There are many forms of treatment and different options available for those who suffer from trauma and addiction. The goal of any program is recovery from substance abuse. Talk to your doctor right away if you recognize symptoms and feel you may be suffering from post-trauma addiction. A doctor will help to refer you to a specialist in the area best suited for you.

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