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How Trauma and Addiction are Connected

The True Definition Of Trauma

Unfortunately, trauma is a part of life. Research suggests that most people experience some kind of trauma even before they become an adult. Trauma is defined by the dictionary as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” If you think of trauma in this way, you might consider anything that disturbs you or causes distress as traumatic – anything from a divorce to the loss of a job. Although these are undoubtedly disturbing and distressing occasions, they are more commonly considered negative life experiences, rather than traumatic events. To truly understand what trauma is, it is important to give it a more clear-cut definition. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes individual trauma as resulting from “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.”

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Often Develops In Someone Who Experiences Trauma

Trauma affects people in different ways. Many people experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of a traumatic experience. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) “is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” It is a mental health condition that can cause major problems for the person who experiences it to the degree that it will interrupt their daily living. PTSD is just what the name suggests – it is a stress disorder brought on post-trauma. More specifically, it is an anxiety disorder. About eight million American adults have PTSD during any given year, which is only a small percentage of those who have actually survived a trauma. Approximately ten percent of all women develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared to about four percent of men. The American Psychological Association reports that while at least half of all people will experience some kind of trauma in their lifetime, “women are twice as likely to develop PTSD, experience a longer duration of posttraumatic symptoms and display more sensitivity to stimuli that remind them of the trauma.”

Different Types of Trauma That Initiate The Fight Or Flight Response

Many people associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with combat veterans who have served in wartime. However; it is important to recognize that PTSD is not limited to military service members. Anyone who survives a significant trauma can develop PTSD and experience the debilitating symptoms of the disorder. PTSD is often referred to as the “fight or flight” syndrome. Trauma brings about a high level of stress, which lies at the root of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The body and brain continue to respond to life post-trauma as they did when they were actually experiencing the trauma itself. The brain sort of gets stuck in a loop. It executes the same physiological fight or flight response as it did when the person was in actually in the situation. There are a number of different types of trauma that can bring on PTSD. Here are some of the most common:

  • A sexual assault
  • A physical assault
  • Domestic violence
  • A car accident
  • Severe weather phenomenon like an earthquake, tornado, flood, or fire
  • Witnessing a violent crime
  • Witnessing the unexpected death of someone you care about
  • Being the victim of a violent crime
  • Childhood abuse
  • Participating in combat or living in a war zone
  • A terrorist attack of some kind

These are just a few examples of trauma that can bring on PTSD. If you have survived anything that you felt was life-threatening, you may experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A Deeper Understanding of PTSD Symptoms

It is important to understand that a traumatic event is a life-changing, soul-shaking, earth-shattering experience. It is a catastrophic event that occurs so far outside of everyday life, the brain is overwhelmed by the need to figure it out. A constant state of fear, overwhelming anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression, a negative heightened state of awareness, constantly mentally reliving the trauma, the need to isolate and avoid social situations, and the loss of interest in daily activities are just a few of the symptoms that accompany PTSD. Having negative beliefs, feelings, and attitudes about life is common after a traumatic event. Experiencing a life-threatening situation can change the way a person perceives themselves, their lives, their Higher Power, and everything they thought they knew to be true about their existence. Someone with PTSD might begin to believe that life is nothing more than a series of random and uncontrollable events, which can make them feel powerless. The severity of PTSD symptoms varies from person to person. They can last for weeks, months, or years depending on how profoundly the individual was affected by the traumatic event and whether or not they seek therapy.

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The Connection Between Trauma And Addiction

There is a notable connection between trauma and addiction – especially among those who suffer from PTSD. This is not surprising. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a wretched condition that brings upset and discomfort to the person who experiences it. Many people turn to alcohol, marijuana, opioids, heroin, and other drugs because they want to numb their mind and find relief from their symptoms. Here are some statistics that explain how prevalent trauma and addiction really are:

  • Up to 75 percent of all people who have experienced a serious trauma have reported alcohol abuse.
  • Alcohol abuse affects 52 percent of men with PTSD and 28 percent of women.
  • Drug abuse affects 35 percent of men with PTSD and 27 percent of women.
  • Among all veterans receiving VA care for PTSD, at least 27 percent also have a substance abuse problem.

While using drugs or alcohol may provide temporary relief for PTSD symptoms, they actually prevent the brain from healing from the trauma and make the situation worse. The use of substances will never bring about recovery from trauma.

Dual Diagnosis – When PTSD And Addiction Are Both Present

When someone has PTSD and an addiction problem, they are diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder, also known as a dual diagnosis. A dual-diagnosis is present when someone has a mental health disorder and a substance abuse problem. It is important to recognize that dual-diagnosis is not limited to PTSD. For instance, someone can have a substance abuse problem and clinical depression or schizophrenia and be considered dual-diagnosis. Some argue that PTSD cannot be effectively treated until the addictive cycle has been arrested. With this school of thought, someone with an addiction to alcohol, illegal drugs, or legal opioids must first detox and receive treatment before addressing the underlying symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However; others argue that when trauma is the underlying cause of the addiction, it must be addressed in order for the substance abuse to stop. Others believe trauma therapy and addiction treatment can be delivered simultaneously.

Types of Therapies For Treating Trauma and Ultimately Addiction

We believe those who have been self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma need to address both their substance abuse problem and get treatment for their trauma. In order for someone with PTSD to heal from addiction, they simply must find relief from their PTSD symptoms through therapy. There are a number of therapies that have been proven to be effective for treating trauma. EMDR Therapy, Prolonged Exposure (PE), and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) are especially therapeutic for people who suffer from PTSD and addiction. Let’s talk about these three therapies in depth.

Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR Therapy is a ground-breaking therapy that is being administered to people across the United States who have experienced the negative consequences of trauma and turned to drugs or alcohol as a solution. People who have experienced trauma have a difficult time making sense of what happened to them and find it challenging to let go of the memory associated with the trauma. This leads to negative feelings and memories that continue to recycle themselves in the brain as if they were on a loop. With EMDR, an individual works with a certified therapist and remembers the trauma they experienced. The therapist then has the participant focus on an object several inches from their face (like a pen or finger) while moving that object back and forth rapidly and repeatedly to engage both sides of the brain. This bi-lateral engagement is said to create a memory shift that causes recollections of the trauma to be less painful. It is also said to reprogram the brain and retrain it to relate to drug and alcohol use in a different way. EMDR usually involves one to three months of weekly sessions that last up to ninety minutes. Many people start to notice relief of their PTSD symptoms after just a few sessions.

Prolonged Exposure (PE)

Prolonged Exposure is a trauma-focused psychotherapy or “talk therapy” where the participant works with a highly trained therapist who specializes in PE. People who have experienced trauma have a tendency to isolate and avoid social situations. While this may appear to bring some type of temporary relief, it is not healthy in the long-run. Plus, it prolongs PTSD symptoms because it causes trauma victims to stay stuck in endless mental loops where they relive the trauma. PE teaches a breathing technique that helps people with trauma manage anxiety and has them practice what is called “in vivo exposure.” With in vivo exposure, someone with PTSD will gradually confront situations they have been avoiding and share these experiences with their therapist. They will also talk about the details of the trauma in depth through a process known as imaginal exposure. PE usually takes place of eight to fifteen weekly sixty to ninety-minute sessions. Through Prolonged Exposure, someone with PTSD can find relief from their symptoms and regain more control of their life. Addressing the trauma also makes it easier to treat the addiction problem.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is another type of talk therapy that has been proven to be highly effective in treating those who have experienced trauma. It also involves writing assignments. CPT teaches the trauma victim to reevaluate the thoughts that have about what happened to them. The idea is that when someone changes the way they think about an event, they can change the way they feel about an event. As we mentioned previously, people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often get stuck in a mental loop where they think the same thoughts or relive the event obsessively. CPT helps close that loop and bring healing to the situation. For example, the victim of a violent crime may believe what happened to them was their fault. Cognitive Processing Therapy allows them to rethink the event and come to realization that they are not to blame. CPT helps someone who has PTSD cope with difficult emotions like anger, anxiety, or guilt. It allows them to rebuild things they may have lost as a result of their trauma like their sense of safety or control, trust in others, self-esteem, and intimacy. Cognitive Processing Therapy usually involves 12 weekly sessions that last from sixty to ninety minutes each.

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What To Do If You Have Experienced Trauma And Addiction

If you have been struggling with overcoming trauma and you have sought the use of drugs or alcohol as a solution, we want to encourage you to get the treatment you need. You will never find healing from PTSD from the bottle, the pipe, or the needle. Admitting you need help is the first step toward healing.