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The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

The connection between trauma and addiction is complex, with many layers which are invariably interwoven. Examining the mechanisms of this connection, we uncover coping strategies, self-medication, and neurobiological changes that form a challenging cycle. 

Here we aim to explore further how trauma and addiction are related, how addiction can be borne of trauma, and what recovery ultimately can look like. Through seeking healing with a multidisciplinary team of trauma-informed providers, no survivor needs to suffer, and recovery can start today.

How Are Trauma and Addiction Related?

Before delving into the intricate relationship between the two, it can be helpful to have a definition of what the terms ‘trauma’ and ‘addiction’ mean. Trauma is generally defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that can have long-term psychological effects. It refers to an emotional or psychological response to an event or series of events that are shocking, distressing, or harmful. 

Addiction is characterised by ongoing compulsive use of a substance, or behaviour, despite serious negative consequences. This is usually coupled by an inability to stop or control the use or behaviour. When using substances there is also often the presence of increased tolerance to the drug and withdrawal symptoms if the person were to suddenly stop using. 

Now that we understand trauma, we can see how it may lead to addiction, or problematic use of substances or behaviours. After experiencing trauma it can leave survivors feeling fearful, vulnerable, and can even prevent them from building up a full and meaningful life. Addictive substances and behaviours offer a temporary escape from these feelings, and may even feel empowering in the moment. 

Addiction may then feed back into this trauma response. This may happen through worsening symptoms of past trauma, like social isolation, and also through the creation and maintenance of newly traumatic experiences. This may include risky situations, environmental deterioration, job loss, and more. 

Trauma and addiction feed into each other like a vicious cycle that can be incredibly hard to escape without professional help. Even with formal therapeutic intervention, it is crucial that trauma and addiction must be treated concurrently, or any recovery is at risk of crumbling. If a person is attempting to be sober, but continues to have severe flashbacks without any coping strategies, for example, they may find themselves unable to avoid falling back on their trusted source of relief.

Understanding these facets of the trauma-addiction connection is pivotal for developing holistic treatment approaches. Addressing both trauma and addiction concurrently, often through trauma-informed care, is essential for fostering lasting recovery and healing.

How Trauma Leads to Addiction

There are many mechanisms through which trauma can act as a catalyst for addiction. Whether as a coping mechanism or as an attempt to numb emotional pain, the journey from trauma to addiction is nuanced and multifaceted. 

Some examples of ways that addiction can be born from trauma include, but are not limited to: 

  • Coping Strategy: The temporary relief provided by substances or addictive behaviours may be a key factor in why some individuals who have experienced trauma develop addictions. They may use them as a coping mechanism to tolerate the emotional pain, distress, or memories associated with the traumatic event.
  • Self-Medication: Surviving trauma often leaves emotional scars such as heightened stress, anxiety, or depression. In an attempt to self-medicate and alleviate these distressing symptoms, individuals may turn to substances that offer a temporary escape or numbing effect. 
  • Neurobiological Changes: Trauma can change the way the brain functions and its response to stressors. Survivors may find themselves struggling with impulse control, decision-making, and emotional regulation, making them particularly susceptible to addictive behaviours. 
  • Escaping Emotional Pain: Often those who continue to experience emotional pain associated with their trauma will seek out anything that helps them to escape those feelings. Addiction not only serves as an escape, but also a means of avoiding confronting such trauma. 
  • Social Isolation: Survivors of trauma, particularly relational trauma or that involving an intimate breach of trust, often have difficulty forming close and meaningful relationships with others. This social isolation makes them more vulnerable to addiction, which in turn further breaks down what relationships they may have.

It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop an addiction. Treatment approaches that address both the trauma and addiction are often more effective in promoting sustained recovery than addressing one at a time, as explored above.

Emotional Trauma and Addiction

Emotions are the basis on which many of our choices and desires are based. However, traumatic experiences not only alter brain functioning, but also create stress responses that mean survivors struggle to regulate and manage overwhelming emotions. 

This dysregulation can lead to intense and overwhelming feelings such as fear, sadness, anger, or shame. Distressing memories or flashbacks of the original trauma may cause these feelings in inappropriate or disproportionate ways. Addiction not only serves as a coping strategy for when these emotions come, but also as a means of prevention by avoiding or suppressing the memories in the first place. 

Emotional trauma may also negatively impact an individual’s self-esteem, and their ability to form healthy attachments to others. Those who have experienced emotional trauma may struggle with trust issues, fear of abandonment, or difficulties in forming deep connections. Addiction, again, serves as a ‘quick’ fix for repressing these feelings and even temporarily solving them. 

The relationship between emotional trauma and addiction can create cyclical patterns of coping. As individuals attempt to cope with the emotional aftermath of trauma through addiction, the addictive behaviours themselves can contribute to further emotional distress, perpetuating the cycle. Addressing the impact of emotional trauma on addiction often requires a comprehensive and trauma-informed approach in therapy and rehabilitation, which is crucial in developing effective recovery strategies. 

Trauma in Childhood and Addiction

Trauma experienced during childhood can have profound and lasting effects on an individual’s development, shaping their emotional, cognitive, and behavioural patterns. The relationship between childhood trauma and addiction is complex and can contribute to the vulnerability of developing addictions later in life.

One example of this is the impact of trauma on a child’s brain development. We have already mentioned how trauma can affect the structure and function of the brain; however this is especially true during childhood when we have high levels of neural plasticity. Adverse experiences may affect areas related to impulse control, decision-making, and emotional regulation, increasing the risk of engaging in addictive behaviours.

Children also often model their behaviour based on the coping strategies observed in their family environment. If substance use is prevalent or normalised within the family context, it may increase the likelihood that the individual will turn to substances as a way of coping with stress and emotional pain.

It is important to be aware that trauma doesn’t necessarily refer strictly to a singular traumatic event, like an assault or car accident. It can also refer to chronic traumas that happen over a long period of time. This is particularly relevant when discussing childhood trauma. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences, commonly referred to as ACEs, encompass various forms of abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction experienced during childhood. Research indicates a strong correlation between the number of ACEs and the likelihood of developing substance use disorders later in life. Here we can see an example of how chronic traumas can be just as damaging and life-altering as single events. 

Trauma and Addiction Recovery

Recovery from addiction in the presence of trauma requires a comprehensive and individualised approach that addresses both the substance use disorder and the underlying traumatic experiences. While undergoing treatment for both may feel overwhelming, it will ultimately lead to greater healing and results in higher quality of life and levels of satisfaction.

Effective recovery programs integrate trauma-focused interventions with trauma-informed addiction treatment. Successful recovery from addiction means addressing the root causes of substance use, or behavioural engagement. Therefore any treatment programme must address them simultaneously. 

It is also crucial to incorporate the building of resilience and health promoting coping strategies. Skills such as stress management, emotional regulation, and mindfulness can play a crucial role in navigating triggers and preventing relapse. To remove a survivor’s main coping strategy without implementing any others is a recipe for relapse. 

Trauma can also erode a person’s sense of agency and self-efficacy. Recovery programmes should also aim to rebuild a sense of empowerment, helping individuals regain control over their lives. Enabling people to make positive choices and set goals helps them to feel a sense of choice and control that they have never had before.

Holistic approaches to recovery that incorporate traditional talking therapies as well as complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, and art therapy address the interconnected aspects of mental, emotional, and physical well-being. A multidisciplinary team at an inpatient facility offers the chance for survivors to recover from their traumas and addictions whilst feeling secure and being able to access a wide range of interventions. 

The intersection of trauma and addiction recovery requires a compassionate and integrated approach that addresses the unique needs of each individual. Recognising the impact of trauma, fostering resilience, and providing a continuum of care contribute to a holistic and effective recovery process.

Conclusion

The connection between trauma and addiction is a complicated one, but within this terrain lies the potential for profound healing and transformation. By embracing a compassionate,  integrated, and trauma-informed approach, Clinic Les Alpes hopes to pave the way for individuals to break free from the shackles of addiction whilst also rediscovering a sense of agency, resilience, and the possibility of a brighter, fulfilling future.

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