If you spend any time in an alcohol and drug rehab center, you will start to see that trauma and addiction are linked. Many recovering addicts have stories of trauma, whether recent or from childhood. In fact, as many as two-thirds of addicts have experienced trauma in their pasts.
But why are trauma and addiction linked? Let’s first take a quick look at what constitutes trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma refers to any situation in which a person feels a level of fear for their well-being or the well-being of a loved one. Common causes of trauma include accidents, abuse, shootings, combat, and experiencing a sudden loss. These situations cause a person’s nervous system to respond drastically in an attempt to preserve their life, putting them on high alert.
For some survivors of trauma, the nervous system does not return to its normal state. Rather, it remains hyperactive, making it feel like the person is still in danger. They experience flashbacks, have disproportionate reactions to loud noises and sudden movement, and have trouble sleeping, among other effects.
When these symptoms continue six months after the traumatic event, the person can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, even those who do not develop PTSD often struggle to deal with the trauma. Different kinds of traumas affect people differently. Some cause a person to feel disenfranchised and vulnerable. Others make it difficult for a person to trust the stability of their world.
While individuals with PTSD are at a much higher risk of addiction, anyone who has survived a trauma is at increased risk.
Why is trauma connected to addiction?
The reasons trauma and addiction are linked are complex. In some cases, there is no causal relationship or the causal relationship is reversed. For example, children who grow up in a difficult household with a parent struggling with addiction may learn their coping mechanisms from that parent. Furthermore, addiction can put people in dangerous situations which can lead to trauma.
Some of the reasons past trauma can lead to addiction include the following:
Alcohol and drugs can have significant numbing effects on a person. This gives them some time in which they can forget their trauma and the impact it has had on them. This is especially true for people suffering from PTSD, as it can temporarily counteract the increased nervous system activity.
This effect can be enticing for people who have experienced problems sleeping after a trauma.
Over time, as the person becomes dependent on alcohol and drugs, they lose their impact and lead to more dangerous situations. They become unable to cope with crises in a healthy way and the negative effects of the trauma increase.
On the other hand, some survivors of trauma use drugs and alcohol to feel something different rather than to numb themselves. They may feel exhausted from what seems like constant sadness and anxiety. Stimulants like cocaine give the person the opportunity to experience “positive” feelings for a short time.
Unfortunately, the comedown after taking drugs or alcohol only worsens the original difficult feelings, and the person becomes more reliant on the substance to feel good.
For children who have grown up in a neglectful or abusive environment, drugs and alcohol can serve another purpose. They provide an escape from the home environment, providing the opportunity for disempowered children to feel in control of their happiness. Abusing drugs and alcohol can also be a way of acting out in the hopes that a responsible parent or adult will come to their aid.
People who become addicted to drugs and alcohol at an early age due to trauma often do not learn healthy coping mechanisms. Withdrawal from their substance of choice becomes traumatic in and of itself.
Treating trauma in rehab
The best rehab centers provide treatment for co-occurring disorders, including trauma. When addiction is linked to trauma, one cannot be treated in isolation. Since alcohol and drugs have become a coping mechanism, the traumatic experience which has led to the distress needs to be confronted in a healthy manner.
The link between trauma and addiction is key for many addicts to find a way forward. Without dealing with past trauma, the lingering experience puts a recovering addict at a high risk of relapse.