Guide to Trauma and Addiction

Legacy Healing Center Blog

Suffering a traumatic event is one of the most difficult experiences to overcome. It can result in long-lasting effects on a person’s mental health and overall wellbeing. Trauma is different for everyone and it can affect each person in a variety of different ways. For some, they find that turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with the lasting effects of trauma is the only way to deal with their experience and emotions.

Since the link between trauma and addiction is so strong, it is important to address and treat both conditions simultaneously. If only addiction is treated, an individual may still have difficulty coping with past traumas, leading them back into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse.

What does Trauma Look Like?

Everyone experiences trauma at some point in their lives, no matter how minor it may be. Trauma is a term used to describe any event that causes psychological harm with prolonged emotional effects. These events cause emotional suffering and anguish upon the person who has experienced it. Trauma may influence how a person reacts and deals with future situations that recreate the way they felt during a distressing event.

Trauma can be anything that causes distress, including being the victim of a crime, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, witnessing an accident where the death of a loved one is involved, or being a victim of a sexual assault. Regardless of the severity of the event, trauma is characterized by the lasting effects an event has on an individual. In some cases, an individual may not be aware that they are suffering from trauma. They may simply view it as a bad event that happened to them.

While denial and shock are typical reactions to a traumatic experience, there are several other emotional responses that may occur for an extended period of time. These responses will vary from person to person, but may include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Vivid flashbacks, or recalling the event
  • Feelings of guilt or responsibility for the event
  • Feeling of hopelessness
  • Isolating behaviors
  • Nausea and headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Being startled easily
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotionally disconnecting from stressful events, or numbing

Some people cope with trauma very well, only experiencing effects shortly after the trauma and having the ability to heal from it quickly. However, others have a more difficult time coping and may find solace through mood or mind-altering substances.

The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

Many people who begin to abuse drugs do so due to an inability to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. In the case of trauma survivors, these emotions may be so severe and terrifying that they use drugs and alcohol to deal with the flood of emotions that they experience.

Trauma and addiction are two severe conditions that may perpetuate one another. While trauma exposure increases the likelihood of substance abuse, addiction also increases the chances that a person will encounter trauma due to the risky behaviors associated with addictive behaviors.

  • Nearly 70% of people who seek treatment for a substance use disorder have a history of trauma exposure.
  • People who have experienced trauma in the past are approximately three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse than those who have not.
  • People who abuse substances before experiencing trauma have greater difficulty coping with the stress of trauma, causing the cycle of trauma and substance abuse to become worse.

Unresolved trauma can make it even more difficult to stay sober if left untreated because stress triggers can provoke urges to begin abusing drugs and alcohol again. This makes it necessary to treat a person who suffers from trauma and addiction with a dual diagnosis approach.

Trauma Informed Care

Mental health and addiction specialists can accurately access the symptoms of a person who has experienced trauma to effectively treat addiction and trauma simultaneously. Since therapy is not a one size fits all solution, it is important to have an individualized treatment plan specified for each unique individual.

People who have had exposure to trauma may suffer from any or all of the following difficulties.

  • Have significant trust issues making it difficult to open up to others about their past
  • Hold onto the fear that a therapist may not be able to help them
  • Have repressed or fractured memories about the details of their trauma
  • Have feelings of shame or embarrassment as they may blame themselves for the trauma
  • Be afraid to talk about their trauma because it may bring up unpleasant emotions

Trauma-informed care aims to work collaboratively with victims to build relationships and trust. This type of therapy will focus on safety, transparency, peer support, and empowerment to help an individual work through their trauma. Using these principles helps individuals who have experienced trauma to feel comfortable talking among their peers about the event and arm with the tools needed to cope with everyday stressors without reliving their trauma.

Healing from Trauma and Addiction

Finding the underlying causes of each person’s addiction is vital to their recovery. In many cases, one of the underlying causes is trauma. Dual diagnosis treatment plays an important role in addressing both mental health and addiction in order to effectively treat both conditions and prepare an individual to live a sober life.

When a person who has experienced trauma goes through medical detox, often their symptoms from trauma exposure will become worse. They may become very defensive and closed off, making it necessary to integrate trauma-informed care into addiction treatment. This integrated treatment modality will create a safe place for clients to begin addressing their trauma and recovering from addiction.

Dual diagnosis treatment of trauma survivors who suffer from addiction will consist of cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, individual therapy, group therapy, holistic therapy, and trauma-informed care. Our therapists at Legacy Healing Center are equipped to provide the best care possible to individuals with co-occurring trauma and addiction to help them heal and recover.

While a person who has experienced trauma will have unique experiences and needs to address in treatment, recovery is possible. The first step is admitting you have a problem and be willing to accept the help you deserve.

Help Guide Emotional and Psychological Trauma
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Making the Connection: Trauma and Substance Abuse

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Guiding Principles of Trauma Informed Care