Around half of the people in addiction treatment are suffering from a diagnosable traumatic disorder such as PTSD. This is not a coincidence – PTSD and substance use disorders are two mental health conditions that are inextricably linked. Understanding this link is necessary in order to seek and receive appropriate help and support when you’re suffering from both trauma and addiction.
Trauma refers to “An event or series of circumstances that have lasting effects on your mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual well-being.” (SAMHSA).
A traumatic event may refer to physical or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, natural disaster, or illness, to name just a few. In reality, trauma can be caused by anything – what is important is the survivor is responding to it in a way that suggests it has a lasting effect on their health and well-being.
Trauma and Addiction
When PTSD is triggered, it is extremely distressing for the person suffering from this condition. Often, this trauma is brought to the surface again and again and with great frequency, and for many, the use of drugs and alcohol initially begins as a coping mechanism. Once they recognize that intoxication seems to alleviate traumatic memories, they continue to self-medicate to find further relief and dependence and addiction become a genuine risk.
The traumatic event may be years or even decades old – we might not even remember it properly. However, it remains stored in our subconscious, and when triggered, our brain responds as if we are in life-or-death danger now. We might feel scared, anxious, angry, or a plethora of other emotions as our nervous system prepares us to deal with the threat and floods our bodies with adrenaline, ready for fight or flight.
When this happens, it is extremely uncomfortable, and many people turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate these seemingly inexplicable symptoms.
It is important to note that the trauma is deeply embedded and often from a childhood event. As many as 70% of teenagers in addiction treatment have been found to have histories of trauma. The same study found that conversely, 59% of teens with histories of trauma develop treatable substance abuse problems.
Finally, while the link that connects addiction to pre-existing trauma is clear, there is also a link between substance use disorders and trauma. Addiction seems to impair our innate capacity to handle stress, so when someone is using substances heavily, they are far more susceptible to the influence of negative experiences than they would otherwise be. And of course, intoxication and highs lead to risky behaviors that greatly increase the chances of experiencing a traumatic event, including:
- Violent situations
- Driving or being driven by people under the influence
- Debilitation of physical condition
- Risky or dangerous sexual situations
Treating PTSD and Addiction
In order to treat co-occurring PTSD and addiction, all credible treatment centers will do an in-depth assessment of their clients as soon as possible. This enables the center to tailor the client’s treatment to their specific needs, so the earlier they understand what is driving the client’s behavior, the better.
If clients hold onto an unaddressed set of self-destructive coping mechanisms as part of a chronic trauma disorder, their treatment will be less effective. Trauma-informed treatment empowers clients to deal with symptoms of PTSD with healthy personalized strategies, making their transition back to everyday life much easier.
Which Treatments Work Best?
PTSD and addiction both affect brain chemistry in a way that causes us to experience and respond subconsciously to environmental triggers. A vital component of treatment involves talking or experiential therapies to learn how to manage these triggers positively and productively without the need for drugs or alcohol.
Holistic treatment is always the best approach for trauma-related addictions, as only looking at and managing half of the symptoms is not a comprehensive approach. It will not give the client as good a chance at recovery if they’re left with no way of coping with PTSD symptoms or drug cravings. More importantly, by treating both, they’ll know how the two conditions interweave and compound one another and have a more thorough understanding of their inner workings.
If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction that may be related to trauma, it is absolutely crucial to find a treatment center that is experienced in treating trauma-based addiction. A trauma-informed approach may or may not include therapies like:
- Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Dialectical behavioral therapy
- Psychodrama therapy
If you can find a treatment center that offers one of these specialized therapies, you are much more likely to leave rehabilitation with long-lasting outcomes.
Remember, the mind is not always the most trustworthy narrator, and you may not be aware that trauma is connected to you or your loved one’s problematic substance use.
It is not always easy to accept a past traumatic event as being just that. Your best approach is to seek out a treatment provider specializing in treating trauma alongside addiction. The quicker you can find a center that meets your specific needs, the quicker you can regain control of your life.