The Way in Which Trauma and Addiction are linked
Research shows that there is a significant correlation between trauma and addiction. If you've ever heard the phrase “not everyone with trauma has an addiction, but everyone with an addiction has trauma,” you may know this to be true.
It's easy to understand that many people engage in substance use to feel better emotionally and mentally, even though this ends up having the opposite effect in the long run.
People may use substances to help forget painful memories, to help escape their present circumstances or to help numb difficult emotions. Some use drugs or alcohol to make themselves feel something after being disconnected for so long.
However, is the source of this need for mood alteration actually trauma that was experienced in childhood? Is it possible that biological changes that took place as a result of childhood trauma are what lead to the development of addiction?
Read on to gain a brief understanding of what trauma is, the damaging effects of childhood trauma, and how the trauma stored in the body can lead to addiction.
What is trauma?
Simply put, trauma is anything that affects the brain’s ability to cope.
There are three types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex.
- Acute trauma results from exposure to one event.
- Chronic trauma results from repeated exposure to stressful events. This can include domestic violence or childhood bullying.
- Complex trauma results from exposure to multiple traumatising events.
Trauma can also result from the way you were raised, such as being held to an incredibly high standard or being placed in a position where you became the parent. It can also come down to what happened in the home you grew up in, or the environments you were exposed to.
There are certainly many different things that can cause trauma. Here are just a few of the events and experiences that can cause trauma:
Causes of trauma
- Sexual assault
- Domestic violence
- Psychological abuse
- Serious illness
- Sudden death
- Sudden breakup
- Physical injury (such as a serious car accident)
- Natural disasters
The traumatic effects of adverse childhood experiences
Being exposed to a stressful event does not inherently mean a person will develop trauma.
There are many factors that affect whether an event is traumatising for someone. Some of these reasons include a persons mental health status at the time of the event, their personality, prior exposure to traumatic events, and their approach to dealing with emotions. Because of these varying factors, two people can respond very differently to the same event. Whilst one can experience trauma, the other does not.
Below are some common symptoms of experiencing trauma:
Symptoms of trauma:
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mistrust of others
- Mistrust of yourself
- Emotional outbursts
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Fear that the traumatic event will happen again
- Difficulty focusing
- Headaches or nausea
Many research studies conducted over the years have demonstrated a strong link between childhood trauma and addiction as an adult. One notable study on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, studied traumatic events taking place during the first 18 years of life. These experiences included the loss of a parent, witnessing domestic abuse, experiencing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and living with a family member struggling with a mental health condition.
Over the course of 20 years, researchers found a significant correlation between ACEs scores and addiction. Those with four or more ACEs were three times more likely to struggle with alcohol use as an adult, according to one finding.
It’s evident from research that experiencing trauma precipitates addiction, but why?
How trauma in the body leads to addiction
Trauma is very often at the core of an addiction. As you read earlier, the symptoms of trauma are widespread and varied.
Trauma can manifest itself in many different ways, and is based on each individual person’s circumstance. However, one of the common effects of childhood trauma is the body’s difficulty in regulating its own stress system.
When trauma causes hypervigilance
The body's fight-or-flight response is triggered when a stressful event occurs. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol get released into the bloodstream. The activation of the stress response causes the body to experience shallow breathing, hyper-vigilance, alertness, and increased heart rate and blood pressure.
The stress response in the body allows a person to respond to a threat until the threat has passed, after which they typically fall back to baseline.
The body’s stress response is designed to protect you, but unfortunately, this system can become compromised if you’re exposed to trauma.
Consider a child who experiences prolonged exposure to a stressful situation. Because the situation continues to happen, the issue of the threat doesn't have a chance to become resolved. Therefore, the child’s body remains in a constant state of elevated stress and alertness.
Because the body’s stress response has become dysregulated and is now in this elevated state, it can cause the child to become anxious and hypervigilant. Being in this anxious, hyper-vigilant, and stressed state therefore becomes the child's baseline. If a child doesn't have the proper support or tools in place, they will have difficulty regulating their nervous system, and consequently, their emotions.
Additionally, experiencing trauma in childhood can also impact the body’s production of oxytocin and serotonin. The body’s ability to feel good, and feel connected to others, depend on these hormones (among others).
As the child grows up, they continue to experience difficulty regulating their emotions, struggling with anxiety that spills into every area of their life. They may stumble upon substances such as alcohol, opiates, or benzodiazepines, which have a calming effect. These substances offer that now-adult a sense of calm that they were never previously able to achieve on their own.
When trauma causes disconnection
Although trauma can cause some children to become more anxious and hyper-vigilant, it can have a vastly different effect on others. For some children, trauma causes them to dissociate, numb themselves, and disconnect. This happens subconsciously in an attempt to protect themselves from stressful situations. Unfortunately, this can cause the child to have difficulty feeling their own emotions. They can walk through life on autopilot and with a sense of apathy.
As these children become adults and get exposed to substances such as cocaine or methamphetamines, they may begin using them in order to feel something again. Instead of finding themselves drawn to substances that have calming effects as listed above, they may become drawn to substances (or behaviours, such as gambling) that provide them with energy, alertness, and an elevated mood.
It’s evident that the effects of trauma are deeply complex and varied. After considering the effects that trauma has on the body’s ability to regulate stress, it becomes clear how experiencing trauma can lead a person to develop an addiction to a mood-altering substance. Although it only makes the core problem worse, engaging in substance use offers an initial and temporary sense of relief from the mood alterations that have occurred due to childhood trauma.
When substance use perpetuates symptoms of trauma
Even though a person may engage in substance use to find relief from traumatic experiences, engaging in use can actually exacerbate the initial symptoms.
For instance, a person may engage in excessive alcohol use in an attempt to forget painful memories from childhood. They may also engage in alcohol use to help them fall asleep at night, as childhood trauma has caused sleep troubles. Although the alcohol use may provide a temporary reprieve from painful memories, these memories or feelings come flooding back the next morning, or when the person is sober.
The alcohol doesn't actually heal the pain, eventually it compounds it. With regards to sleeping, whilst alcohol can help to initiate the onset of sleep, it really disrupts the REM cycle. This can lead to increased feelings of hyper-vigilance and irritability once the alcohol wears off.
Also, ongoing substance use can increase feelings of disconnection and emotional numbness.
It can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Substances can also contribute to feelings of hyper-vigilance, social isolation, irritability, and emotional outbursts.
Being addicted to drugs or alcohol is in itself a traumatic experience, so by continuing to use, the symptoms of trauma continue to perpetuate themselves, becoming worse over time.
Treatment for trauma and addiction
The nature of trauma and addiction go hand-in-hand. They are inextricably intertwined and result in significant emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical damage. Fortunately, not only can addiction be healed and worked through, but so can underlying trauma.
When getting treatment in recovery from addiction, it is important to treat the underlying causes of the addictive behaviours. It is also vital to treat any trauma that contributed to the addictive disorder.
The best course of action is to find a therapist, counsellor, or psychiatrist who specialises in treating substance use disorders as well as trauma. Because addiction and trauma feed off of one another and perpetuate one another, it is imperative to follow a treatment plan that addresses them both.
Uncovering the role substance use has played in a persons life and how trauma has contributed to emotional dysfunction, provides a person with a greater insight into themselves. This can prove life-altering and ultimately, healing.
Treatment for trauma often includes support groups, individual counselling, and education. Some forms of therapy commonly used to treat trauma include EMDR, cognitive behavioural therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and dialectical behavioural therapy.
Healing from the trauma can help a person to understand the root of their addictive behaviours. Working through trauma is foundational for experiencing a long-lasting, healthy recovery from addiction.
Author - Thurga
- Why trauma can lead to addiction: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-addiction/202109/why-trauma-can-lead-addiction
- Traumatic stress and substance abuse problems https://istss.org/ISTSS_Main/media/Documents/ISTSS_TraumaStressandSubstanceAbuseProb_English_FNL.pdf
- What is trauma? What to know https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/trauma#symptoms
- Making the connection: Trauma and substance abuse https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/making_the_connection_trauma_substance_abuse.pdf
- Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Post traumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051362/
- Traumatic stress: effects on the brain https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/