Experiencing a traumatic event can leave a deep and lasting emotional scar on the psyche that must be managed while healing takes place. The manner and speed with which people recover from the trauma can vary greatly, dependending on individual factors.
Often — but not always — those who experience trauma turn to substance use as a coping strategy, which can lead to dependency and addiction.
So, does trauma cause addiction?
The answer is not as simple as “yes” or “no.” In fact, trauma and addiction are deeply interrelated, and in order to understand how, it’s helpful to take a step back and look at all the parts.
What is trauma?
Trauma is the emotional response that follows after witnessing or experiencing a frightening or disturbing event. Feelings of fear and a lack of control over the situation cause an intense stress response. Examples of traumatic events might include:
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault
- Serious auto accident or other life-threatening situation
- Sudden unexpected death of a loved one
- Domestic violence, stalking, or prolonged patterns of abuse
- Serious health event or diagnosis
- Natural disasters
- War or violent conflict
- Trauma experienced in combat duty
The traumatic event is often something that happens suddenly, triggering the fight or flight response. These events often cause us to feel powerless, which adds to the severe and lasting emotional trauma symptoms.
The effects of the trauma settle deep within the psyche, becoming a wound or scar that can cause the individual to carry the emotional burden with them for a long time — even for life. The type of trauma that does not resolve within a one-month period of the inciting event, is diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
So that’s trauma, but what about addiction?
What is substance use disorder?
Substance use disorder is a condition in which an individual is unable to control their use of drugs or alcohol, despite the negative consequences resulting from the substance use. Substance use disorder impacts all areas of an individual’s life, affecting their work, relationships and overall wellness.
Substance use disorder evolves over time. As the brain is repeatedly exposed to the substance, tolerance to its effects increases. In an effort to achieve the desired effects, a person consumes more and more of their prefered substance. Ultimately, this pattern of substance use can culminate in dependence or addiction.
Okay, so now we have two different situations that are both referred to as a “disorder.”
What else do they have in common?
3 Ways trauma is linked to substance use disorder
Substance use is, unfortunately, a common coping mechanism that people resort to after experiencing trauma. A meta-analysis of this connection revealed that approximately 35% of patients receiving treatment for substance use disorder have undergone a traumatic event. The authors of the linked study also found this was especially prevalent for those that experienced childhood trauma.
So while trauma can’t be said to directly cause addiction, it does increase the odds that a substance use disorder could develop, which may lead to addiction.
Main reasons why individuals with a history of trauma are more susceptible to substance use disorder include:
- Difficulty processing the trauma: After living through a traumatic event, the individual is overwhelmed and may not be capable of managing their emotions. This is especially true for a child, as they are still developing. The child may grow up and never fully recover from the event, resulting in maladaptive coping methods like substance use.
- Self-medicating the emotional pain: Some individuals may turn to a substance in an effort to numb the pain caused by the trauma. The substance may help mitigate feelings of anxiety or depression, but the risk of developing a substance use disorder over time becomes much higher.
- To aid in sleep: Recurring nightmares, vivid dreams or insomnia might occur after experiencing a traumatic event. Some individuals may use substances to help them sleep, which could evolve into a substance use disorder with continued use.
If an individual develops a substance use disorder as a result of trauma, a dual diagnosis treatment approach will address both conditions and set the stage for healing to begin.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call 866-313-6307.