How Trauma Can Lead to a Substance Use Disorder


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You’ve been through a traumatic event, and the effects of the experience still haunts you. To help, you turn to drugs or alcohol to help you cope and/or forget, but all too soon, this crutch affects every aspect of your life. This road to a substance use disorder is a common one — three-quarters of people who are in treatment for a substance use disorder report histories of trauma or abuse.

Our team of addiction specialists here at Tres Vistas Recovery have extensive experience in the fields of trauma and substance use disorders, and we understand, better than most, how closely the two are linked.

Here, we explore the relationship between trauma and substance use disorders and how we can help you break free from both.

Trauma is more common than you might think

Traumatic experiences are extremely common — 60% of men and 50% of women in the United States have lived through at least one traumatic event. When we say traumatic event, we’re referring to experiences or events like being a victim of violence, witnessing violence, sexual abuse, having an illness, or living through a natural disaster.

In some cases, your brain eventually processes the trauma over the weeks or months after the event and you can put the past firmly in the past. For too many, however, the effects of the trauma linger, leaving them with overriding:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Cognitive difficulties, such as concentration and memory
  • Depression
  • Anger

The reason this happens is that your nervous system gets mired in a state of shock and your brain is unable to make sense of the events. When this happens, you can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects about 12 million adults in the US.

Trauma and substance use disorders

To overcome the symptoms of PTSD or trauma, many people turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. This practice, however, is a slippery slope if you don’t address the underlying trauma, as you can end up with a substance use disorder.

To put some numbers to the connection between trauma and substance misuse, consider the following statistics:

  • Nearly two-thirds of intravenous (IV) drug users report childhood trauma or abuse
  • For each trauma, the risk for early initiation of substance abuse increase 2-4 times
  • 12%-34% of people in treatment for substance use disorders also have PTSD

These numbers paint a very clear picture of how experiencing a traumatic event places you more at risk for misusing alcohol or drugs or, worse, developing a substance use disorder.

Treating your trauma and your substance use disorder together

As we mentioned, our team understands the connection between trauma and substance misuse, which is why we feel that treating both is imperative. To address your unresolved trauma, we turn to dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and/or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

With DBT, the emphasis is on helping you be more mindful to help you live in the moment and not in the past. With CBT, we work on changing your negative thought patterns to help improve your behaviors.

At the same time as we work on your trauma through DBT and CBT, we also address your substance use disorder through medication-assisted treatments, recovery support, and counseling.

By addressing both the trauma and your substance use issues at the same time, our goal is to help you break free from both prisons at the same time.

If you or a loved one is struggling with unresolved trauma and a substance use disorder, please contact our San Juan Capistrano, California office to set up a confidential consultation.

"A great group of people who are passionate about helping people. The whole staff strives to make their clients feel safe and comfortable as possible."
"I have experienced a couple of different recovery programs and Tres Vistas is by far the best."
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