The Role of Trauma in Addiction


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Nearly 225 million adults (70%) in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event, to say nothing of the millions of children who have been exposed. Whatever the age, substance use disorders are commonly linked to trauma as people find ways to cope with the aftermath.

Our team here at Tres Vistas Recovery understands the role that trauma can play in addiction — and it’s a significant one.

In the following, we explore why people who are exposed to trauma are more at risk of developing a substance use disorder and what we can do to resolve both issues.

Exposure to trauma

One of the most important things to understand about trauma is that people process events differently. Trauma is unique to the person experiencing or witnessing the event, and while some people may move on easily, others are haunted by the experience for years.

Events that commonly constitute trauma include:

  • Conflict (war)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Child abuse
  • Physical or psychological abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Death of a loved one (grief and loss)
  • Medical issues

In most of these examples, the person is in the midst of the event, but trauma can also occur when the person witnesses a tragedy.

It’s also important to understand that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn’t always develop after trauma, but that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t struggle with reconciling their emotions and feelings surrounding the trauma. PTSD affects about 7%-8% of the population, and these are the extreme cases. Millions more are still held hostage in lesser ways by the experience, which can serve as a trigger for substance use.

The Role of Substances in Trauma

When you experience trauma, it places you in a state of anxiety or a fight-or-flight mode. For the lucky ones, this state doesn’t last long, and they’re able to move on with their lives. For many, however, the anxiety persists, which leads them to search for ways to numb themselves to find peace of mind.

To put some numbers to the problem, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies reports that:

  • One to three-quarters of people who survive abuse report problematic alcohol use
  • People who experience sexual abuse are more likely to develop drug and alcohol problems
  • Women who are exposed to trauma display an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder
  • Adolescent sexual assault victims are 4.5 times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder and nine times more likely to experience drug use issues.

As you can see, the link between trauma and problematic drug and alcohol use is a strong one.

Addressing both issues

When you or a loved one comes to us with a substance use disorder, our goal is to first remove the substance from the equation through our detox services. Once you’re clean, we spend an extensive amount of time addressing the underlying issues that contributed to the problem, which often includes trauma.

Through our therapy services, we work with you to process the trauma to relieve your stress and anxiety. By giving you the tools you need to better process your trauma, you gain better control over your life, and your need for outside substances decreases substantially.

The bottom line is that, all too often, substance abuse is a side effect of an underlying problem, such as trauma, and we work tirelessly to resolve both so that you can reclaim your life.

If you’d like to learn more about trauma and substance use disorders, contact our office in San Juan Capistrano, California, to set up a consultation.

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