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Why Trauma Often Leads to Addiction & How to Break the Cycle

Some might say that trauma is just part of being a human being living on planet Earth. After all, we all experience bad things at some point in our lives, right? While this may be true to some extent, trauma cannot be so easily dismissed as saying “everyone goes through something bad, so get over it.”

For many, trauma has left its ugly imprint in their lives and its effects have not dissipated even years or decades later. Trauma has the innate ability to wreak havoc in a person’s life in many ways and for many years. Addiction is just one way that trauma can impact someone’s life.

Let’s define trauma and look at its impact on addiction.

What is trauma?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) defines trauma as “an event, series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being."

Based on this definition, trauma can occur from one specific event or it could be something that happened repeatedly over time. It may have occurred during childhood or adolescence. It may also be something that happened as an adult. Regardless of the circumstances, it has had a harmful impact on that person’s well-being.

Trauma does not have boundaries. It crosses all lines, and it impacts all varieties of people. When trauma does occur, however, it changes how that person sees themself and how they see the world.

Below are some common examples of trauma. This is not an all-inclusive list. Other forms of trauma not mentioned here do exist.

  • Abandonment
  • Accident (e.g., car crash or house fire)
  • Bullying or ongoing harassment
  • Domestic violence
  • Emotional abuse
  • Military combat experience
  • Natural disasters
  • Parental neglect
  • Physical assault
  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Sudden loss of a parent or loved one
  • Terminal illness
  • Verbal abuse

Ultimately, the effects of trauma can occur when someone has survived any experience where their well-being was in danger or threatened.

Why does trauma often lead to addiction?

Trauma is such a personal experience and everyone handles it differently. Unfortunately, many people turn to addictive substances and behaviors to cope with the trauma’s aftereffects.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study focused on people who had experienced at least one traumatic event prior to being 18 years old. Based on their responses, they were given a corresponding ACE score. When compared to individuals with no ACE, people who scored four or higher were twice as likely to smoke, seven times as likely to consider themselves an alcoholic, and ten times as likely to have injected street drugs. SAMHSA has also reported that 75% of people in treatment programs for substance abuse issues have reported histories of trauma.

When trauma happens, it causes high levels of stress, among other emotions. Stress forces the body to release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to help it combat the stress. Both cortisol and adrenaline become toxic in high concentrations and when sustained consistently over a period of time.

Even after the trauma has passed (days, months, or years later), the mind and body can get stuck in a loop when you experience a similar stress reaction to a trigger. For example, remembering the traumatic event, even for a few seconds, can cause stress because the mind does not understand the difference between reality and the perceived threat. It senses danger and, as a result, it releases cortisol and adrenaline. This is the brain trying to adapt and respond based on past experiences.

People turn to addictive substances or behaviors to help numb the pain or to disassociate from the experience. For example, when taken, stimulant drugs increase dopamine in the body. Dopamine is considered the happiness hormone. This rush of dopamine provides momentary relief from the pain. In order to keep the relief coming, you must keep taking the drugs and often have to increase their usage. This form of self-medicating is used to keep the traumatic memories blocked while managing the pain or discomfort.

Another reason that people might turn to addiction is that it was modeled to them as a child. When they were younger, they might have seen a parent or loved one who had a really bad day. At the end of the night, that person then relied on alcohol to deal with the stress. If this is the coping mechanism that they were modeled, they might not know what else to do in a stressful situation.

Below is a list of possible addictive behaviors that people might turn to when dealing with past trauma.

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Food
  • Gambling
  • Pornography
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Tobacco
  • Video games

It is important to note that certain addictive behaviors are considered high-risk behaviors. This means that people who participate in those high-risk behaviors are often put in the position to experience secondary trauma which will continue to exacerbate the situation.

How can I break the cycle?

If you are currently caught up in the cycle of addiction, you may feel like you are doomed to keep going round and round. But, there is hope! Whether you’re in the early stages of addiction or you’ve been an addict for years, it is absolutely possible to break the cycle of addiction. It will take work, but it can be done!

If you’re someone who has experienced past trauma and has later turned to addictive substances and behaviors, it is important to treat both simultaneously as they are interrelated. You cannot stop the addictive behavior and expect the trauma to disappear so it doesn’t trigger future stress and pain. You also cannot address the trauma while under the influence of substances.

When looking for a treatment program, search for integrated care that will address both the trauma and the addiction. It should give you access to therapists to help you work through your trauma and addiction counselors to assist in dealing with your addiction.

Also, search for a program that focuses on helping you to develop healthy connections and to learn healthy coping mechanisms. The program should also include steps on forgiveness and acceptance. In the end, you want to find a program that allows you to feel safe as you work through the trauma and addiction.

Depending on the type and severity of your addiction, you may be fine with an outpatient program. This is where you participate in the program by attending individual or group therapy sessions while continuing to live at home or stay with a loved one. If your addiction is more severe and you will require detoxing or need a safe environment, you should consider an inpatient program. This is where you stay in a facility or hospital for a specific amount of time. They are able to monitor your detox process while you participate in therapy sessions.

We also encourage you to establish a solid support system. Having a network of family, friends, meeting groups, and more can be instrumental in your recovery. They can help provide support and encouragement. They can also help you to keep your commitments to yourself.

When should I seek treatment?

If you are reading this article and you’ve recognized that you are an addict, we recommend seeking treatment now. We know that this can be easier said than done. But, moving forward as soon as you’ve identified that you have an unhealthy relationship with drugs, alcohol, or other issues can help keep the momentum going and get you on the path to recovery.

It can also help to identify possible “red flags.” These are strong indicators that someone needs to seek help for their addiction:

  • Absent from work or school on a consistent basis
  • Increased hostility towards others
  • Disinterest in eating or taking care of self (e.g., showering, wearing clean clothes)
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and others (especially those who are not users)
  • Exhibits symptoms of depression and anxiety more frequently
  • Expresses desire to harm self or others

At Jackson House Addiction Treatment & Recovery Centers, we are here to help you break the cycle of addiction. Our team of physicians, nurses, therapists, and certified addiction counselors are committed to helping you on your road to recovery. If you are ready to start your journey towards healing and recovery, contact us for a free and confidential consultation. We will answer questions about our programs and help you determine your next step.

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