Trauma as a Trigger for Addiction

A powerful relationship exists between trauma and substance abuse. Addiction often occurs when the pain and anxiety of trauma become so unbearable that people turn to drugs and alcohol to numb intense emotions. Sometimes, trauma is so severe that people will do nearly anything to make the fear and anxiety go away.

Treating an addicted person who has experienced trauma is rarely successful unless the trauma is addressed at the same time. Recovery from trauma and addiction is possible with treatment, but there are several important facts to consider:

  • Trauma may be caused by exposure to war, violence, terrorist attacks or natural disasters. All are powerful triggers that may lead to use of drugs and alcohol.
  • Childhood abuse and sexual assaults are also powerful traumatic triggers for substance abuse. Research indicates that adolescents who have experienced sexual assault are at least four times more likely to abuse marijuana, and nine times more likely to resort to hard drugs.
  • Some trauma victims may experience guilt or shame, especially if trauma is the result of rape or sexual abuse. Victims who blame themselves may suffer in secrecy for many years.
  • Others traumatic events include witnessing serious injury or death or threats of injury to self or loved ones. Relationship problems such as divorce or separation, as well as working or living in an abusive or neglectful environment, can also result in traumatization.
  • Trauma is often accompanied by other mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. It can also manifest in physical symptoms such as chronic pain or high blood pressure. Sometimes, people exposed to severe trauma may experience terrifying flashbacks.
  • Turning to drugs or alcohol provides only temporary relief. In the long run, substance abuse actually makes symptoms worse by intensifying anxiety and negative emotions. The poor decision-making resulting from substance abuse can lead to additional trauma.
  • Detoxification is usually the first step. Substance abuse can mask symptoms of trauma and often go unnoticed in addiction treatment. Experienced specialized physicians and therapists are needed to arrive at a proper and accurate diagnosis.
  • Although many people use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate unpleasant feelings, others turn to addictive behaviors such as compulsive overeating, sexual abuse or gambling.
  • Developing healthy ways to manage trauma requires a supportive environment and the assistance of a highly trained, experienced and supportive, respectful treatment team.
  • Usually, specialized trauma therapy provides quick relief for the victims, they learn how to value themselves and to manage emotions such as shame and guilt without drugs or alcohol. Often, nutritional supplements, and in rare cases, medication, are prescribed to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. They also learn to understand how trauma impacts on their physical long-term health and ideally, acquire the ability to make healthier life-style choices.
  • Family counseling and education often helps to strengthen relationships and foster increased understanding.

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