In the United States, 61% of men and 51% of women report experiencing at least one traumatic event in their life. People who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have been exposed to traumatic events are at a heightened risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Many people with addictions use substances to self-medicate in an attempt to relieve symptoms of anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, depression, and other emotionally painful symptoms associated with trauma. Many of these symptoms are linked to increased stress and the inability to regulate thoughts and feelings following a traumatic experience.
Traumatic experiences are usually the result of disturbing and harmful events, such as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, violence, extreme poverty, military conflict, or natural disasters. Another reason trauma and addiction often occur together is the fact that the affected individuals’ lifestyle may place him or her in dangerous situations more frequently than that of a non-addicted person.
Having sketchy acquaintances, dangerous neighborhoods, drunk driving, and other factors commonly linked to drug and alcohol abuse may expose substance abusers to trauma via assaults, crime, accidents, violence, and abuse. There may also be biological components that make a person more susceptible to PTSD as well as addictive tendencies.
Therapeutic Elements of Trauma Recovery
Methods for addressing both a substance use disorder and the associated trauma have been found to improve long-term positive client outcomes.
Elements of trauma recovery treatment often include the following:
- Grief counseling
- Support groups
- Individual therapy
- Group therapy
- Exposure or desensitization
- Pharmacotherapy, or medications to mitigate symptoms
- Holistic practices, such as mindfulness techniques, relaxation, and yoga
- Coping skill development, including emotional regulation skills and cognitive restructuring
Trauma-focused therapy is one of the most effective ways to help a client to progress from merely coping to living life fully and freely without the need to use drugs or alcohol. This approach recognizes that a person’s substance abuse is a method of coping with devastating emotions, interfering memories, fear, grief, or feeling unsafe or under threat.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are six main principles of trauma-focused care:
- Trustworthiness and transparency
- Peer Support
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice, and choice
- Cultural, historical, and gender Issues
Safety should be a priority in any approach to trauma recovery. A trauma recovery therapist devises ways to assist the client in managing flashbacks or intensely upsetting responses before examining how trauma has played a vital role in the client’s life.
The therapist works continuously while helping the client find resources and connections with supportive institutions and individuals. Trauma recovery enables clients to better deal with situations that contributed to substance-using behavior in the past.
Trauma-focused therapy for substance abuse involves the following five objectives:
1) Designing a respectful, caring, and safe environment for the therapy.
2) Promoting an understanding of the association between existing mental health problems, such as trauma and emotional disorders, and addiction.
3) Encouraging self-compassion and self-respect to combat the unavoidable guilt and shame associated with addiction and mental health conditions related to trauma.
4) Helping clients to develop healthier solutions to the issues they have identified.
5) Locating other supportive resources, such as recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Breaking the Cycle of Addiction
Drug and alcohol addiction is not something that people choose to happen. Instead, substance abuse is often a desperate attempt to cope with stress, anxiety, depression, and flashbacks or numb unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
From a healthy person’s perspective, substance abuse may seem incomprehensible and a terrible decision. However, people who are struggling with addiction both need and deserve compassion and support to overcome this adversity and heal both emotionally and physically.
Addictive Behavior Is a Survival Strategy
Experimentation with drugs or alcohol often starts as occasional use that is enjoyable or exciting. Addiction is often born as a survival strategy. Moreover, the individual uses substances to get through each day because of the way it makes them feel or to avoid certain undesirable feelings.
Using substances is a means by which to numb or self-medicate distressing thoughts and feelings. It is also a misguided way of running from disturbing memories that have become difficult to control.
Self-medication is a desperate attempt to disconnect from one’s own negative thinking, painful emotions, and disturbing mental images. Essentially, alcoholics and drug addicts are engaging in an ineffective form of self-treatment in an effort to cope with unresolved grief, distress, and suffering.
Recognizing the Need for Treatment
Many people, at some point, decide to drink or use drugs occasionally and socially. They may or may not take the experience of trauma into consideration when they do this. While most people who drink moderately or use low-level drugs like marijuana do not develop severe addictions, many do.
Furthermore, those who have experienced trauma or have emotional problems are at a higher risk of becoming an alcoholic or addict. A person should be able to feel comfortable in their own skin without having to numb or escape thoughts and emotions. If they are unable to do so, it’s time to start examining underlying issues that are contributing to the substance abuse.
A person may have a dependence that would benefit from treatment, even if he or she doesn’t engage in substance abuse every day. Warning signs that a person’s substance abuse habits need to be addressed with professional treatment include the following:
- Repeated binging or drinking/using to excess
- Drinking or using drugs for longer or more intensely than originally intended
- Feeling the need to be drinking or using drugs to socialize
- Drinking or using drugs despite feeling ill
- Engaging in drunk or drugged driving
- Normalizing or glamorizing using behavior
- Drinking or using drugs to control one’s mood
- Drinking or using drugs to help manage emotions or quell psychological pain
- Loved ones confront the user about the damage to the relationship
- Engaging in compulsive, substance-seeking behavior despite the incurrence of adverse consequences
- Drinking or using drugs upon waking or having a “hair of the dog”
- Attempting to conceal alcohol or drugs and their use from others
- Isolating behavior or socializing with a new group of friends
- Neglect of self-care, such as bathing, leading to a disheveled appearance
Getting Help for Trauma and Addiction
Sometimes, years of self-medication using drugs or alcohol have effectively dulled traumatic memories, so on the surface, the addiction appears to be the only problem. A person who has suppressed traumatic experiences may be motivated to become and remain sober, only to find other addictive or unhealthy behaviors eventually replace alcohol or their drug of choice. And, once these feelings come flooding back, relapse is a serious concern.
Persons suffering from PTSD and survivors of traumatic events need to have these issues addressed in addiction treatment. By neglecting this aspect of a person’s mental well-being, recovery from substance abuse is undermined, and the person is much more likely to return to active addiction.
Harmony Treatment and Wellness offers an integrated approach to addiction treatment that simultaneously addresses all aspects of mental and emotional health. Our caring and skilled staff are committed to ensuring that each client receives all the tools and support they need to overcome addiction and relieve the symptoms of mental illness.
If you are motivated to break free from the vicious cycle of addiction and improve your physical and psychological well-being, contact us today—we are here to help!