The Role of Trauma in Substance Abuse
Substance abuse and trauma are often closely linked, which is why high-quality addiction treatment programs offer integrated treatment to address both. Alcohol, as well as prescribed and illicit drugs, are commonly used to cope with negative emotions and symptoms associated with exposure to trauma.
Commonly seen symptoms include (1):
- Concentration problems
Trauma Effects on the Brain
During a traumatic experience, endorphin levels rise and remain elevated, helping to numb the person to the emotional or physical pain of the trauma. Once the event is over, endorphin levels gradually decrease, leading to endorphin withdrawal for a few hours or several days.
This endorphin withdrawal produces emotional distress and other symptoms of traumatic stress disorders. Substance use increases endorphin activity, and using drugs or alcohol following trauma is a common way to combat the endorphin withdrawal and avoid the accompanying emotional distress. People may continue to use drugs and alcohol to mask lingering symptoms of trauma, which may lead to addiction.
Understanding how trauma symptoms relate to substance abuse is a significant part of designing integrated treatment (2).
People with Insomnia
After a traumatic event, many find themselves with problems falling asleep. It’s easy to have a few drinks or take a sleeping pill to get some needed rest. Most times, these methods are effective at first, but lose effectiveness in short periods of time. When people use substances before resting, sleep becomes lighter and more easily disrupted, and nightmares increase as the effects wear off. Many take greater amounts of drugs or alcohol or take them more frequently as a result of increased tolerance, leading to addiction problems.
People with Anxiety
People who experience high anxiety after a traumatic event may lack coping skills to deal with subsequent events that would not normally be disabling. This lack of coping skills can result in everyday events producing symptoms of intense helplessness and fear, feelings of being numb and disabling anxiety. To relieve symptoms, many turn to substances for relief or may relapse back to substance abuse to cope.
People with Anger, Sadness and Shame
Some survivors of trauma can experience difficulties regulating their emotions of anger, sadness and shame. Self-medication via substance abuse is one of the methods used in an attempt to regain emotional control. Unfortunately, this backfires and causes further disruption of emotions, manifesting as changes that occur during drug and alcohol consumption as well as after-effects. In treatment, people learn to regulate their emotions without the use of substances.
People with Concentration Problems
Individuals who experience concentration problems after surviving trauma become frustrated and shamed by their inabilities. Many turn to substances, such as stimulants used to treat ADHD, and may quickly become addicted to these drugs. Adderall and Ritalin are medications that people commonly use and abuse to overcome concentration issues (3).
Helping People with Trauma and Substance Abuse Problems
It’s crucial to ensure anyone who has experienced traumatic events in their lives and uses substances to cope with the negative effects of that trauma enters treatment for effective healing. If left unresolved, trauma can continue to negatively affect them. Integrated drug rehab programs for trauma and addiction help those who need a comprehensive approach to achieve substance-free, rewarding and healthy lives.