Does Trauma Inform Substance Use Disorder?

There are several factors that can increase an individual’s risk of developing substance use disorder (SUD). One well-known risk factor is unresolved trauma. Trauma can derail an individual’s sense of reality, affecting how they process, react, and respond to the world around them. Oftentimes, individuals with these experiences turn to alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to cope. 

The effects can often be long-lasting, informing substance abuse and SUD well throughout adulthood. Additionally, leaving traumatic events unresolved in recovery can increase an individual’s risk of future relapse. Therefore, individuals who are seeking recovery from their substance abuse must address the lasting effects that their unresolved trauma has had on their life. 

Understanding Trauma

While research has come a long way in understanding traumatic events and their effects, most individuals are not aware of the lasting effects that trauma can have on their life. Trauma knows no boundaries; it affects individuals of all ages, races, genders, and cultures. In the same way, most individuals have experienced a traumatic event of some sort throughout their lives. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains that trauma is any event or circumstance that causes physical, emotional, and/or life-threatening harm. Additionally, the event or circumstance has lasting, adverse consequences on an individual’s:

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

The Lasting Effects

A publication by SAMHSA explains, “Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently.” In addition, the “impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.”

It is important to understand that traumatic experiences alter brain structure and associated functioning. The events recalibrate the brain’s alarm system, causing it to function on overdrive. Unfortunately, the brain remains in overdrive even when there are no seemingly-threatening stimuli present. Many individuals may feel as if they are living through their traumatic experiences over and over again. This symptom may also indicate the presence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” PTSD is diagnosed when an individual experiences:

  • One or more re-experiencing symptoms: such as flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts
  • At least one avoidance symptom: such as avoiding people, places, and things that trigger memories of the traumatic experience
  • Two or more arousal and reactivity symptoms: being easily startled, having angry outbursts, feeling tense or “on edge,” and having issues with sleeping
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms: such as trouble remembering the traumatic experience, distorted feelings like blame, and loss of interest in enjoyable activities

It is important to understand that individuals can experience the long-lasting effects of trauma without meeting the criteria of PTSD. 

Self-Medicating Practices

Individuals with traumatic symptoms or PTSD experience increased risks of using alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. Self-medicating is the practice of using substances in an attempt to numb or relieve painful symptoms, including traumatic memories as well as present-day anxiety. While self-medicating may seem like an effective way to resolve difficult symptoms, these practices are incredibly dangerous. 

Issues With Self-Medication

First and foremost, alcohol and drug use alters brain chemistry in lasting ways. Individuals with unresolved traumatic events may be more likely to engage in alcohol in drug use because of how it has uniquely changed their brains. However, such substance use can worsen the effects of trauma on the brain, especially as the effects of alcohol and other drugs wear off. 

Additionally, self-medicating practices cover up the root problem. Instead, such practices create more problems for the individual engaging with them. Using alcohol and other drugs – even in moderation – can make an individual more vulnerable to chemical dependency. The underlying trauma becomes exacerbated with the presence of withdrawal symptoms from substances. 

Treatment for Trauma and SUD

Recovery from SUD often involves addressing and overcoming underlying issues. Treatment facilities may utilize a variety of treatment approaches, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), to treat trauma and its lasting effects. Additionally, most facilities offer trauma-informed treatment approaches to ensure that clients feel understood, validated, and supported as they work through their past experiences. 

In addition to addressing trauma, addiction treatment programs will also empower clients to cease their substance abuse and establish sobriety. A combination of one-on-one and group therapy interventions may be encouraged for clients to experience the benefits of both professional and peer support in treatment. Additionally, a variety of relapse prevention tools will be provided to clients in treatment to ensure that they have the best chance at securing lasting abstinence from self-medicating practices. 

Unresolved trauma often informs substance abuse and substance use disorder through self-medicating practices. Individuals are often unaware that trauma can cause long-lasting consequences to their mental, physical, and social well-being. Fortunately, treatment centers often incorporate trauma-informed care into their programming to help individuals heal from the root causes of their substance abuse. At 12 South Recovery, we offer a wide range of outpatient programs and recovery services to help individuals recover from the effects of chronic alcohol and drug use. We offer partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), and general outpatient programming. If you or a loved one is seeking recovery from trauma or substance abuse, we can help. Call us today at 866-839-6876.

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