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Exploring the Link Between Problematic Substance Use and Trauma

Exploring the Link Between Problematic Substance Use and Trauma

Published: March 8, 2022

Long-term recovery from addiction requires looking at the underlying causes of addictive behavior. It involves asking why you seek and use a substance. 

For many people, substances are used as a coping mechanism for pain, to fill some kind of void, or as a way to relax and escape. Overcoming these underlying causes is a fundamental part of maintaining sobriety and avoiding relapse. Failure to overcome and address these could lead you to restart substance abuse once again.

In addition to the above, trauma is a driving factor behind addictive behavior. Childhood trauma, or adverse childhood experiences, increases the chance of developing a substance use disorder (SUD) and other mental illnesses. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that develops after a single or series of distressing events, is also associated with SUDs.

But why does trauma lead to problematic substance abuse? This blog unpicks some of the mechanisms underlying the connection.

How Does Childhood Trauma Increase the Risk of Substance Abuse?

Our experiences as a child can have a profound effect on the rest of our lives. Perceptions of ourselves and the world around us that we form when we are younger can shape the way our brains develop and influence our characters as adults. Distressing experiences can also halt the development of certain parts of the brain, leaving us unable to function or respond well in certain situations.

Childhood trauma can take various forms, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. It may involve the death of a parent, the witnessing of violence, or parental separation.

Extensive scientific research has connected childhood trauma with an increased risk of addiction and explored the underlying mechanisms. Scientists propose several different theories that could explain the connection.

A study in Biological Psychiatry found that childhood trauma disrupts the reward pathways in our brains. Addiction also disrupts these pathways, causing the brain to produce strong urges to repeat substance use to experience the pleasurable high - the reward. By disrupting these pathways when a person is young, childhood trauma could make a person more likely to develop an addiction to a substance.

Another study found that childhood trauma can diminish our bodies’ cortisol stress response, which helps us calm down after distressing events. Diminished cortisol response is linked to alcohol abuse and drug experimentation, two forms of problematic substance use. 

What Is the Connection Between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Abuse?

PTSD can develop after someone witnesses or experiences a distressing or frightening event or a series of distressing events. Symptoms may include flashbacks, depression, anxiety, detachment, and nightmares. 

Many people experience lingering effects after a traumatic incident, but these should naturally alleviate within a few months. If symptoms persist, it’s important to get treatment to help your brain fully process the event and allow you to move past it.

PTSD symptoms can be extremely distressing and impact your everyday life. Without appropriate support, people may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the symptoms or as a form of self-medication. They may seek drugs to relieve anxiety or to improve their mood and ease feelings of depression.

The link between PTSD and substance abuse is perhaps most obvious in the experience of United States veterans. Approximately one in five veterans with PTSD also have a SUD. However, this pattern also persists in the general population, with research finding that rates of SUDs strongly correlate with childhood trauma and PTSD symptoms in civilian populations.

Recovery and Sobriety

While experiencing trauma makes developing an addiction likely, most people who experience trauma do not go on to abuse drugs and alcohol. Moreover, offering support and therapy to trauma survivors and witnesses - including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy - can help people process traumatic events and cope with the effects in healthy ways.

People struggling with co-occurring addiction and trauma can receive treatment for both conditions simultaneously through dual diagnosis programs, which provide a holistic treatment experience to facilitate long-term recovery. 

The effects of substance abuse and trauma can be devastating and severely impact your everyday life. However, effective treatment and prevention methods for trauma, PTSD, and addiction promote a fulfilling and productive life.

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