Understanding Trauma-Informed Treatment for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Several risk factors can increase an individual’s vulnerability to substance abuse and substance use disorder (SUD). Specifically, the link between trauma and substance abuse is well-established. The complex experiences of trauma can reshape an individual’s entire worldview. Therefore, it is no surprise that unresolved traumatic experiences can also increase an individual’s risk of developing mental health disorders. Effective treatment for SUD, mental health disorders, and underlying trauma calls for the use of trauma-informed treatment. 

The Role of Trauma in Substance Abuse and SUD

According to Depression and Anxiety, “Exposure to traumatic experiences, especially those occurring in childhood, has been linked to substance use disorders (SUDs), including abuse and dependence.” This is due to the lasting effects that trauma has on brain structure and functioning. Childhood trauma in particular can interfere with psychological development, increasing an individual’s risk of developing a wide range of mental health disorders. The journal explains:

 Ample evidence has shown that childhood trauma compromises neural structure and function, rendering an individual susceptible to later cognitive deficits and psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse.

Trauma is a shared risk factor for both SUD and other mental health disorders. However, trauma being a risk factor does not in and of itself mean that everyone who experiences trauma will engage in substance abuse or develop a mental illness. 

Self-Medicating Practices

Another reason trauma often plays a role in the development of SUD and mental health disorders is due to self-medication. Trauma can leave a lasting imprint on an individual’s emotions, affecting their ability to manage stress throughout their life. Unfortunately, in an attempt to numb, treat, or reduce the intensity of the lasting symptoms, many individuals turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate.

It is not uncommon for individuals to be unaware they are self-medicating with substances. On the other hand, some may be aware of their attempts to self-medicate but unaware of the potential consequences that self-medicating can cause. In short, relying on alcohol and other drugs to treat or manage painful emotions and distressing symptoms can quickly develop into substance dependence as well as SUD. 

Additionally, self-medicating practices only temporarily mask the underlying problem. With repeated substance use, an individual may develop uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when not engaging with the substance. As a result, their trauma remains unresolved in addition to now experiencing SUD. To effectively recover from SUD and trauma, treatment must address both conditions simultaneously. 

What Is Trauma-Informed Treatment?

According to one book published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma-informed treatment, or trauma-informed care (TIC), is defined as “an intervention and organizational approach that focuses on how trauma may affect an individual’s life and his or her response to behavioral health services from prevention through treatment.”

The book explains that while there are many definitions of TIC and various ways to incorporate it into clinical practice, all trauma-informed approaches incorporate three key elements, the “three Rs:”

  1. Realizing the prevalence of trauma
  2. Recognizing how trauma affects all individuals involved with the program, organization, or system
  3. Responding by putting this knowledge into practice

Another publication by SAMHSA acknowledges a fourth, most important “R”: resisting retraumatization

When a treatment facility utilizes trauma-informed treatment in their care, they approach every client with the assumption that they have endured trauma of some kind in their lives and treat them accordingly. For SUD treatment, trauma-informed approaches are necessary as the link between trauma and substance abuse is undeniable. 

Effectively establishing sobriety requires more than ceasing alcohol and drug use. To maintain lasting sobriety and prevent relapse, treatment must help clients address and overcome the root causes of their substance abuse. Trauma-informed treatment incorporates the knowledge, compassion, and understanding individuals need to work through underlying trauma and its effects. 

6 Guiding Principles of Trauma-Informed Approaches

Trauma-informed approaches are not accomplished by completing any particular checklist. However, SAMHSA has coined six principles that advise all trauma-informed treatment approaches. These six guiding principles include:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness & transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration & mutuality
  5. Empowerment & choice
  6. Cultural, historical & gender issues

What to Expect From Trauma-Informed Treatment Approaches

If a facility utilizes trauma-informed treatment, an individual will know immediately upon treatment inquiry. These facilities want clients to know they can feel safe, supported, and empowered as they journey through recovery with them. However, facilities that do not immediately identify as trauma-informed will still likely offer trauma-informed treatment approaches. One important quality to seek when choosing a potential treatment facility is individualized treatment. 

When a facility uses individualized treatment, the staff can tailor treatment programs to fit a client’s unique needs and recovery goals. These types of facilities strive to provide thorough evaluations and screenings for new clients. Such screenings help treatment staff better determine trauma-informed needs as well as what trauma-informed therapies may best fit into a client’s treatment plan. 

Trauma-Informed Treatment at 12 South Recovery

At 12 South Recovery, we understand the inevitable links between trauma, SUD, and mental health disorders. This is why we approach treatment from a trauma-informed space. By prioritizing individualized treatment, we are able to meet the unique needs of each client. One of the therapeutic approaches we can incorporate into our client’s care is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

This therapeutic approach was designed to help individuals process severe traumatic memories. The benefits of EMDR can be experienced after just one 90-minute session. It involves recalling traumatic memories while focusing on external stimuli, such as the therapist’s hand. The goal of EMDR is to avoid retraumatization while reducing symptoms of PTSD and emotional distress. 

There is an unavoidable link between unresolved trauma and substance use disorder (SUD). To achieve lasting recovery from SUD, you must address and overcome all underlying causes, including trauma. Trauma-informed treatment assumes that all clients seeking sobriety have endured some kind of trauma in their lives. Additionally, these approaches prioritize compassion and understanding, avoiding the retraumatization of clients during the course of treatment. At 12 South Recovery, we offer several trauma-informed treatment approaches, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. By utilizing individualized treatment, we can tailor our approaches and therapeutic interventions to fit your unique needs and goals. To learn more about the role trauma plays in substance abuse, call (888) 830-8374.

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