Addition can be triggered or exacerbated by many things that are outside of our control. One such factor is trauma. Knowing what trauma is and how it can impact the development or worsening of substance abuse can help you act if you see the signs in yourself or someone you love.
What Is Trauma?
If you have experienced an intensely stressful event that put you in physical or psychological danger, you have experienced a traumatic event. The following are examples of this type of event:
- Childhood abuse or neglect
- Domestic violence
- Sexual assault or abuse
- Natural disaster
- Mass casualty event
- War or combat
While this list is not exhaustive, it provides insight into the types of events that can be traumatic. Experiencing these events can cause you to develop traumatic stress. Traumatic stress is a psychological response to an event that can cause even further suffering. The following are symptoms of a traumatic stress response:
- Anxiety and avoidance of people, places, and things related to the event
- Depression and numbness
- Difficult sleeping
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Hypervigilance, or the need to be constantly aware of your surroundings in order to protect yourself
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Substance abuse
- Dissociation or detachment
- Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks about the event
Many of these symptoms can occur briefly in people who experience a traumatic event but do not go on to develop lasting effects. These symptoms are the body’s way of protecting you after you were in a dangerous situation. For example, if you were in a serious car accident, it is normal to display some of the symptoms above in the period after the accident. You may choose to drive only when needed or ask people for rides to avoid driving yourself. It is likely that you would become more vigilant on the road, checking on the activity of other cars more than you would before your accident. You may experience anxiety while driving and recall the accident.
These emotional responses are designed to keep you safe and prevent another accident from happening. Over time, these symptoms should resolve, and you should find that you are able to drive just fine again. This ability to overcome a traumatic event is rooted in the development of resilience. Resilience is the capacity to move forward from an adverse event without severe effects. Many people who experience trauma will develop resilience and employ effective coping strategies to deal with the aftermath. For some people, a traumatic event serves as a “wake-up call” that encourages them to reassess and realign with their values. It might motivate them to spend more time with loved ones and more time doing what they enjoy.
This is not the case for everyone, however. Some people may find that the symptoms above linger long after the event and become disruptive to their life. These symptoms can greatly alter the way an individual reacts to the world and other people. In the car accident example, if the individual were to stop driving altogether because of the intensity of the anxiety, it would greatly impact their life. It would most likely affect their job if they did not have reliable transportation every day. Not driving would make it more difficult to run errands and acquire essentials like groceries. It could promote isolation by forcing the individual to spend more time at home and away from other people.
Trauma and Substance Abuse
An important potential consequence of experiencing trauma is substance abuse. After a traumatic event, it is common for people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. These substances can temporarily blunt negative emotions, and this might be a welcome distraction for people suffering. Our culture allows for this to some extent. For example, we often see in movies that a person undergoing some type of stress will seek refuge at a bar or other place that serves alcohol. Using substances in this way promotes emotional and physical dependence, however.
For people already working to overcome substance abuse, experiencing a traumatic event increases the risk of relapse. One significant example of this occurred in New York City after the terroristic attack on 9/11. About a quarter of New York residents who used substances at the time of the attack increased their use after the attack. Additionally, many people who had given up substances returned to them.
Seeking Help for Both
If you are currently coping with both substance abuse and the effects of trauma, it is hard to do it on your own. One reinforces the other, creating a vicious cycle that can ensnare you. This is why seeking treatment for both conditions is important. When pursuing treatment, you should find a provider who can attend to the full spectrum of your needs. Trying to address your addiction without addressing the trauma you have survived can prevent growth and keep you in the cycle. Fortunately, there are many approaches specifically tailored to this situation and designed to promote recovery from both.
If you are struggling to overcome both substance abuse and trauma, you are not alone. These two conditions go hand-in-hand and require a unique approach to treatment. Fortunately, there are options available to help you through this process. Family-Centered Services is equipped to help you with your treatment needs. We offer individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, sober monitoring, comprehensive case management, treatment placement consultation, sober transport, and intervention preparation and education. Our services are aimed toward the entire family because we know that trauma and addiction affect more than just the individual. If you would like to initiate services for yourself or a loved one or learn more about us, call (509) 991-5822 today.