There are no two ways around it: trauma often leads to addiction. The trauma and addiction statistics below are shocking, but tell an important story:
- Seven out of ten adults in the United States have reportedly experienced a traumatic event in the past – and at least twenty percent of those who experience trauma later develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Around 1 in 10 Americans are addicted to either drugs or alcohol.
These numbers are surprising for some. But they paint the picture for how integrally connected trauma, substance abuse, and addiction are.
What is Trauma – and How is it Connected to Addiction and Substance Abuse?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says that trauma is any event or circumstance experienced by an individual that leaves a lasting impact on mental, physical, social or emotional wellbeing because it was either physically or emotionally harmful. The key here is an individual experience. Traumatization occurs to a single individual through stress, abuse, shock or injury. Nobody else can fully understand or appreciate this experience – which is why so many people turn to substance abuse as an answer to their trauma. Clearly there is a connection between trauma and addiction. Some experts go as far as to say that addiction is almost always a result of underlying trauma or a history of abuse. But what does this look like, and why are trauma and addiction so commonly two sides of the same coin?
A Holistic Perspective of Mental and Physical Health
Dr. Gabor Maté is a Canadian physician with a focus on addiction and trauma. More than anything, Maté focuses on the connection between mental health and physical health. Before jumping into the specifics of why trauma and addiction are so often inextricably connected, it is worthwhile to consider Dr. Gabor Maté’s holistic perspective. The physician’s focus is on helping people realize how their past abuse, injury, stress or hurt has either caused or impacted their substance abuse and addiction.
“They didn’t know they were traumatized. They though they were just addicts. They didn’t realize that they were using the addiction to soothe a deep pain that was rooted in trauma. The addiction is the person’s unconscious attempt to escape from the pain.”
~ Dr. Gabor Maté
In other words, addiction is often a response to past trauma – whether someone realizes it or not. Without making this connection past hurt and substance abuse, it becomes much more difficult to treat the underlying addiction. Ideally, these specific connections between trauma and addiction can highlight how to recognize when past stress or abuse plays a role in substance abuse. These connections also show the importance of connecting trauma and substance abuse treatment.
#1: Trauma-Induced Addiction Starts at a Young Age
Multiple studies have found a connection between exposure to trauma and substance abuse in young people. Again, trauma and addiction statistics for adolescents do not lie. A quarter of American youth have experienced a traumatic event before they turned 16. In turn, one in five youth in the United States (between the age of 12 and 17) actively abuse alcohol or illicit drugs. In short, trauma induced addiction is not uncommon in youth:
- Young people who have experienced abuse were at least three times more likely to turn to substance abuse than those with no past trauma.
- For young people receiving substance abuse or addiction treatment, at least seven in ten reported a history of trauma.
The connection between trauma and addiction is relatively straightforward. Being exposed to abuse, stress, injury or shock at a young age can cause a variety of mental issues – including the development of PTSD. As a result, many young people turn to substance abuse to deal with these negative effects. PTSD and substance abuse go hand in hand, particularly for young people. In many cases, this substance abuse turns into an addiction.
#2: Self-Medication is Key in Making the Connection Between Trauma and Substance Abuse
If substance abuse is the step before full-blown addiction, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is the first step before full-blown substance abuse. In a phrase, self-medication with alcohol or drugs is an attempt to manage the stress of trauma or the impact of PTSD by using these psychoactive substances. In other words, men and women often turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the emotional, mental and even physical impact of their PTSD. The idea is that people tend to self-medicate by trying to numb these intense feelings. It does not take any stretch of the imagination to see how self-medication can be considered substance abuse – and how this substance abuse can easily turn into addiction as a result of the PTSD. This is particularly true with women’s issues in recovery from addiction. An undiagnosed psychiatric disorder – like PTSD – is one of the major reasons that women relapse back into addiction. Making the connection between trauma and substance abuse has never been so important.
#3: The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction Goes Both Ways
The statistics so far have made it clear that trauma can create an environment where addiction begins to take shape. But it is equally important to understand that substance abuse in any form can also put people at risk for secondary trauma. Simply put, trauma puts people at risk for substance abuse and substance abuse puts people at risk for trauma. This can either be as a direct result of addiction or due to the impact that substance abuse and addiction have on the brain’s ability to deal with stress. Some studies have found that those who are already victims of substance abuse or addiction are less able to cope with trauma in a healthy way. Alcohol or drug abuse essentially impairs a person’s brain and body functions. Because of this, individuals who are already addicted or engaged in substance abuse are less able to deal with the effects of a traumatic event. According to one study, people diagnosed with a substance use disorder were twice as likely to develop PTSD after experiencing trauma than people with no history of substance abuse.
#4: Many Do Not Realize the Need to Account for Trauma and Addiction Treatment
As the quote from Dr. Gabor Maté has already pointed out, very few people suffering from addiction recognize the reason for their addiction. In other words, if someone does not recognize the underlying stressors or past abuse that contributes to their substance abuse, they are likely to continue down the destructive path of addiction. More than that, the emotional and mental impact of trauma makes it more difficult to stop abusing drugs or alcohol. This creates a kind of cycle of trauma and addiction – at least until the individual receives trauma integrated addiction treatment.
#5: Trauma and Substance Abuse Both Cause the Consequences Of and Create the Treatment for Comorbid Disorders
The truth is, drug addiction is a mental illness and is often associated with other mental illnesses. This is called comorbidity – or co-occurring disorders. The combination of trauma and substance abuse cause the consequences of comorbid disorders. They may bring on the symptoms of another mental illness, or a mental illness caused by trauma may lead to drug abuse. More importantly, both addiction and comorbid disorders caused by trauma have overlapping environmental triggers. This makes recovery even more difficult for those dealing with the consequences of comorbid disorders. This connection between mental illnesses caused by trauma creates the necessity for co-occurring disorders treatment. Thankfully, many addiction treatment professionals recognize the importance of treating comorbidity rather than just the face of addiction.
#6: Co-Occurring Disorders Treatment Gives Shelter From Both the Wind and the Rain
Not all connections between PTSD and substance abuse or addiction are negative – there is also trauma and addiction recovery. In recent years, the addiction treatment field has recognized the importance of co-occurring disorders treatment – that is, the treatment that focuses on the multiple ways that trauma affects a person. Instead of just focusing on how trauma leads to addiction, co-occurring disorders treatment focuses on the deeper issues caused by stress, injury, abuse, and past trauma. For instance, the Addiction and Trauma Recovery Integration Model (or ATRIUM for short) is a trauma integrated approach to addiction. This program is modeled after other twelve-step programs, and it works with both support groups and individual sessions with therapists. According to SAMHSA, the program is intended to “bring together peer support, psychosocial education, interpersonal skills training, meditation, creative expression, spirituality, and community action to support survivors in addressing and healing from trauma.” The Addiction and Trauma Recovery Integration Model is just one example of trauma integrated addiction treatment. Programs like this one show how the connection between trauma and substance abuse not only causes the consequences of comorbid disorders but also offers the hope of treatment for these co-occurring disorders.
The Hope of Trauma and Addiction Recovery
The connection between trauma and addiction is particularly concerning when considering women’s issues in recovery from addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 80% of women in addiction treatment have reported a history of abuse or trauma. This highlights the importance of finding a women’s integrated treatment model. Thankfully, trauma and addiction treatment offer hope for anyone looking to recover from both the effects of addiction and the impact of past trauma – especially for trauma survivors and their relationships. In considering women’s issues in recovery from addiction, as well as the impact of trauma survivors and relationships, there are several different approaches to recovery from substance abuse. These include:
- Trauma Integrated Addiction Treatment
- Co-Occurring Disorders Treatment
- The Addiction and Trauma Recovery Integration Model
- Women’s Integrated Treatment Model
Recovery from Trauma and Addiction: The Whole Person
All of these approaches have at least one thing in common: they focus on the whole person. When we talk about trauma and substance abuse treatment, we are talking about treating the entire mind.
“Until people manage to change society so society takes a different approach, suffering is going to happen. You have to live with the way it is. What people need is a lot of awareness, a lot of consciousness so they can identify stressors and eliminate them when they are capable of doing so and find ways of living with them when they can’t.”
~ Dr. Gabor Maté
As Dr. Maté points out, the key to recovery is to learn the tools for dealing with the stressors of both trauma and addiction. This can be coping mechanisms, communication, individual therapy, support groups, and a whole range of other treatment options. If trauma leads to addiction, recovery from this trauma can lead to addiction recovery. We are here to help you through this process. If you still have questions about the connection between trauma and addiction or want to get started in trauma and addiction recovery, feel free to contact us today.