woman comforting man in therapy for trauma and addiction

The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

Trauma and addiction go hand-in-hand. That doesn’t mean that all people who experience a trauma will develop a substance or alcohol use disorder, but it does mean that experiencing trauma increases an individual’s risk of becoming addicted. It’s estimated by the National Center for PTSD that up to 75% of survivors of violence or abuse experience alcohol use concerns. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a major concern when someone has gone through traumatic events. Help for trauma and PTSD treatment is available at Promises Behavioral Health. Call us today at 844.875.5609 for more information.

What Is Trauma?

You must first understand trauma to understand the relationship between trauma and addiction. While some events are considered universally traumatic, such as watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, trauma isn’t an event. It is the reaction to an event. Every person reacts differently to potentially traumatic experiences. Some examples of traumatic events include:

  • Abuse – verbal, physical, or sexual
  • Bullying
  • Poverty
  • Exposure to violence
  • A natural disaster or life-threatening accident
  • Combat or living in a war zone
  • Rape and other forms of sexual assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Parental neglect
  • Chronic illness
  • Medical emergency

A person does not have to experience traumatic events firsthand to feel the effects of trauma. Having a loved one in a life-threatening situation or even hearing about a frightening event over and over can be a traumatic trigger.

Understanding the Effects of Trauma on Addiction

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, experts now have a better understanding of how trauma affects the brain and causes mental health disturbances such as PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders. Trauma survivors may experience changes in three areas of brain function.

The amygdala, the area that detects threats, may become overactive. When this happens, the brain becomes hypervigilant, constantly looking for danger. This can cause a person to feel fearful, anxious, and vulnerable, even when there is no real threat.

The cortex, which can be described as the brain’s control center, takes a back seat and lets survival instincts take control. This impacts a person’s ability to think logically and make good choices. For example, it can impede an individual’s ability to resist drinking or using drugs.

Memories are processed in the hippocampus. Trauma can cause the hippocampus to become underactive. If this happens, the brain does not move memories to its outer layer for long-term storage. Instead, memories continue to play out in the brain as if they are brand new. This can cause people to re-experience trauma as if it’s just happening.

Using drugs or alcohol can reduce the overwhelming sensations that a trauma-affected brain creates. This is what is meant by the term “self-medicating.” Individuals who are suffering from the effects of trauma may not understand why or how they are experiencing the intensely uncomfortable feelings described above, but they do know that drinking or using drugs dulls the uncomfortable sensations.

The Frequency of PTSD and Addiction

Not everyone with PTSD develops a substance use disorder, but it’s estimated in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that around half of all people who seek treatment for an addiction meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. When PTSD and addiction occur together, they are known as co-occurring conditions.

Self-medicating to manage the symptoms of PTSD is common. People may not realize they have PTSD or don’t want to admit they are struggling, and using drugs or alcohol can seem like a good idea. However, in the long run, it only makes symptoms worse. 

Like trauma, addiction affects brain function and can compound the problems caused by trauma. The most effective way to minimize the effects of trauma on addiction is to seek dual-diagnosis treatment.

Find Support for PTSD and Addiction at Promises Behavioral Health

If you or someone you care about has experienced a traumatic event and needs help from a mental health professional, call Promises Behavioral Health at [Direct.]

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