Updated on October 8th, 2020
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Did you know nearly two-thirds of all individuals receiving treatment for drug abuse report being physically, sexually or emotionally abused as a child? While this statistic can’t be attributed as a singular cause for drug abuse, research shows that traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, crime, or accidents can lead to addictive behaviors later in life.
Just because a person experiences something traumatic early or later in life does not mean they will automatically develop a substance abuse problem or behavioral issues, but it does have the capability to influence their behavior as a result.
What Is Trauma?
We all hear the word “trauma” thrown around frequently, especially in regards to mental illness, substance abuse and behavioral problems. Research makes it clear that trauma plays a role in addiction, but in order to fully understand that connection, we must first understand what trauma is.
There are three main important aspects to understand about trauma:
- Psychological trauma is an event or experience that makes a person fear for their own physical or mental well-being and compromises their ability to cope.3
- Traumatic experiences are often defined by the way an individual perceives an event or experience, which is completely subjective.
- Traumatic circumstances may be singular events or ongoing occurrences in either the distant or recent past.
What Is The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction?
Trauma and addiction are strongly related. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, research has shown that adverse childhood experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or crime are strongly related to the development and prevalence of substance abuse. Exposure to chronic stress can also disrupt nervous system development, which may hinder a child’s ability to cope with negative emotions.
Because of this, the child may begin to adopt other coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or other addictive behaviors. These behaviors may also lead to higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
There are many kinds of traumatic experiences or events that may lead to addictive behaviors, but situations that leave people with feelings of intense fear or helplessness often are the culprits. These may include:
- Grief – The emotions experienced after losing a loved one or experiencing some other kind of loss can create intense feelings of confusion, anger, and devastation.
- Sexual abuse – Most sexual offenses are committed by someone the victim knows, which can result in feelings of betrayal, shame, and anxiety.
- Catastrophic incidents – Sudden, unexpected accidental deaths or natural disasters are shocking and far beyond anyone’s control, oftentimes leaving individuals feeling helpless and lost.
- Physical abuse – More than 10 million Americans are victims of physical violence each year and victims of domestic abuse are more likely to suffer from depression or suicidal tendencies.
- Adverse childhood experiences – The 1998 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Health verified that children exposed to certain experiences have an increased risk of developing substance use disorders as adults. These experiences can include neglect, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, the divorce of parents, domestic violence, living with someone who is addicted, experiencing racism or bullying, living in foster homes or an unsafe neighborhood, or witnessing violence.6
Other examples of potentially traumatic occurrences include:
- Severe bullying in childhood
- Car accidents
- Witnessing violence or something else that was shocking
Instances of trauma can vary from one person to another as everyone handles these things differently. For some, a car accident may be jarring but easier to handle than others who suffer traumatic flashbacks for years. Not everyone can manage the mental and physical stress caused by these types of occurrences and many people develop unhealthy ways of coping as a result.
The complexity of traumatic circumstances often leaves a person feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. Whether a traumatic event is experienced as a child or an adult, individuals may use substance abuse as a way to cope with it. Hence the link between trauma and addiction.
In many instances, drugs and alcohol are a way to escape reality or numb feelings of pain and anxiety. In other instances, addictive substances may be abused to diminish feelings of depression or to feel happy and carefree.
Trauma can also produce uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms that someone may try to numb with alcohol or drugs, such as:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical pain
- Self-harming behavior
How Common Are Trauma Experiences Among Substance Abusers?
It is estimated that individuals who are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are treated for substance use disorders at a rate five times higher than the general population. Other trauma and addiction statistics that demonstrate the frequency of these co-occurring issues are as follows.
- Individuals with PTSD are two to four times more likely than individuals without PTSD to meet the criteria for a substance use disorder (SUD).7
- Among veterans who had served in the Vietnam era or later, almost half (41.4%) with a substance use disorder were also diagnosed with PTSD.7
- 25-75 percent of people who have survived violent traumatic experience report having problematic alcohol use.8
- Compared to teens who have not been sexually assaulted, adolescent sexual assault victims are 4.5 times more likely to abuse alcohol or become dependent, 4 times more likely to abuse marijuana or become dependent, and 9 times more likely to abuse hard drugs or develop a drug dependence.8
- Men and women who report sexual abuse have higher rates of alcohol and drug use disorders than men and women who don’t.8
- One-tenth to one-third of people who survive accidents, illnesses, or disaster-related trauma experience problematic alcohol use, especially if they suffer from persistent health problems or pain.8
How to Address Trauma in Addiction Treatment
Because trauma is an underlying cause of addiction, we must also prioritize addressing trauma in substance abuse treatment. This is often done through behavioral therapies and medication-assisted treatment with drugs like Lexapro. Although unaddressed trauma severely increases the risk of a person developing substance abuse, research shows effective treatment approaches and support can help them overcome it.
Treating trauma and addiction should go hand-in-hand to most effectively help individuals overcome their substance use disorder and live a fulfilling life in recovery. To summarize, trauma-focused treatment is designed to:
- Promote an understanding of symptoms associated with trauma and trauma responses
- Minimize the risk of retraumatizing the client
- Identify trauma-informed solutions and support that will help the individual recover
Since trauma and substance abuse treatment are so frequently intertwined, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides additional details on the six key principles of trauma-informed substance abuse treatment.
- Safety. Safety is a top priority in trauma-informed substance abuse treatment. It is vital that counselors, medical professionals, and all staff involved create an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for all clients.
- Trustworthiness and transparency. Substance abuse treatment should be transparent at all times. This means family members should be well-informed about their loved one’s progress, clients should be aware of treatment goals and strategies, and staff should be honest and open about all aspects of treatment.
- Peer support. Collaborating and communicating with other individuals who have also experienced trauma and are in recovery is a key component of effective substance abuse treatment. This allows individuals to achieve a greater sense of self-awareness while also learning to develop trust, compassion, and healthy relationships with others. Clients also benefit from the sharing of personal experiences and can use that positive reinforcement to fuel their recovery and sobriety.
- Collaboration and mutuality. It’s important for staff members of treatment organizations to develop a team atmosphere and emphasize the fact that healing does not happen in isolation. Recovery is relational, and collaboration and mutuality are essential in making sure everyone plays their part.
- Empowerment, voice, and choice. Clients and trauma victims receiving treatment for substance abuse treatment should always have a voice in the decision-making processes involved. Instead of controlling the treatment plan, counselors and staff should be facilitators, providing high-quality treatment options and the necessary information clients need to make informed choices about their recovery plan.
- Cultural, historical, and gender issues. There is no room for cultural or gender biases or stereotypes in trauma-informed substance abuse treatment. Processes and treatment services should be sensitive and responsive to the various cultural needs of clients from all backgrounds.
Psychological trauma has a broad definition and an extensive reach into the lives of those it touches, but trauma-informed substance abuse treatment can effectively treat a person’s addiction by breaking down barriers associated with shame, fear, and vulnerability.
Trauma and Addiction Recovery
Much like trauma and addiction treatment should be provided simultaneously, trauma treatment should not suddenly stop after rehab is over. Many people who complete a drug and alcohol rehab program still need support to sustain lasting sobriety and adjust to the demands of daily sober life on their own.
For someone who is recovering from addiction, a sober living home or IOP that provides direct access to one-on-one therapy with a trained clinician is an ideal situation. That way, clients can transition into a less structured treatment program without losing essential care services, like trauma-informed therapy. They are also more likely to thrive in a less structured environment with additional support and trauma-informed care for addiction recovery.
How to Find Trauma-Informed Treatment for Addiction
You may have traumatic life experiences that are contributing to your addiction, whether you realize it or not. Enrolling in a long-term rehab program for drug and alcohol addiction can provide an adequate amount of time to revisit and process these life experiences and learn how to cope with trauma more healthily.
But how do you know if an addiction treatment center provides trauma-informed treatment for addiction? Before you enroll yourself or a loved one in an addiction treatment program, make sure to ask lots of questions like the following:
- Does your facility specialize in treating co-occurring disorders, specifically addiction and PTSD?
- What kind of evidence-based and research-based therapies does your staff use to treat addiction and co-occurring disorders?
- What kind of qualifications does your clinical treatment staff have?
- How do you provide a treatment environment that is supportive, aware, and understanding of trauma issues among people with substance use disorders?
It’s not always easy to find the right treatment program for you or a loved one, but asking the right questions can help ensure that you receive high-quality, trauma-informed care. If you have additional questions about trauma-informed addiction treatment or drug and alcohol rehab at Nova, please contact our admissions team today.