How Does Trauma Lead to Addiction?
The Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction
Addiction is often the mask that hides trauma. Moreover, addiction can seem like an easy solution to numb out trauma, depending on the trauma and mental health challenges someone has faced. Despite this, it’s no surprise the addiction-trauma connection occurs. Someone may wonder which has come first–the addiction or the trauma? There is no simple answer to this question, because trauma and addiction feed one another. Addiction can involve risk factors stemming from childhood, to how the brain handles the substance, to whether someone has support and is willing to overcome it. Unfortunately, there is no simple explanation.
Over time, addiction can retrigger people’s trauma and have it return when they may not expect it. This means the trauma someone tries to escape through addiction can resurface at their most vulnerable time. In response to this, the individual can use drugs and alcohol to hide the pain of this revisiting, and perhaps this symbolizes that trauma can’t be buried. Therefore, they can end up creating a harmful cycle that can destroy their life. It’s important to note addiction can include traditional harmful chemicals, such as alcoholism, crack/cocaine use, heroin abuse and addictive prescription pills. In contrast, it can also include behavioral addictions, such as sex addiction, gambling addiction, binge eating or shopping addiction. Both are similar in intention as they aim to heal deeper wounds or unhealed trauma, making matters worse.
Trauma, Addiction, and Emotional Regulation
Let’s explore more about the trauma-addiction connection. A prominent addiction specialist, Gabor Mate has worked with many battling different addictions. In an interview, he mentioned most of the hundreds of women he worked with who had addictions have been sexually abused as children. In addition, the men were “physically, sexually, and emotionally abused,suffered neglect and were in foster care.” Another source from Psychology Today cites the connections between trauma and addiction by stating people suffering addiction use substances to regulate their emotions and ‘intrusive’ thoughts.
These emotions can include arousal or aggression from high-stress hormones, as people continue using drugs to suppress troubling emotions. They can also form an addiction while numbing disturbing or stressful thoughts they feel powerless over. Furthermore, in addition to using drugs for self-medication of trauma, someone can choose certain drugs to cope with specific trauma-related issues. When someone abuses drugs like alcohol–which is already a depressant–they further create feelings of emotional numbness. The person may feel the alcohol reduces sadness, anxiety or grief, thus bringing them comfort–at least temporarily.
Addiction and Emotional Numbing
Despite someone self-medicating with a harmful substance, the fact they are unable to feel emotions makes it worth it for them. For others, however, trauma can result in high-energy behavior as a way to fight feeling down. They may feel a sense of control and less vulnerable as they put on a happy face despite suffering on the inside. Additionally, they may feel encouraged to use drugs if people think they’re happy.
Let’s say, for example, that someone prefers to be “wired and hyper” or “on edge” due to a traumatic experience. To mask depressive feelings, they can seek out stimulants like cocaine or meth. These drugs may keep their energy high so they seem happy and full of life, and in turn, produce deep feelings of short-lived joy. The problem emerges when someone who is addicted to a substance finds the drug wearing off. As a result, they may come crashing down, forced to face their trauma.
Secondly, people who are addicted to drugs are dependent, for example, and develop withdrawal symptoms if they stop. Their brains have become used to chemicals impacting their impulses, behaviors and emotions. Moreover, substances like alcohol can, over time, change the brain’s chemical composition. Once someone stops–whether going cold turkey or tapering their use–the brain and body go through different phases and symptoms as they try to detox their system.
Such withdrawal symptoms can range from nervousness, sweating, nausea, depression and paranoia depending on the substance abused, the length of time and the severity of the addiction. It’s often best to detox with a professional to reduce relapse rates. Sometimes withdrawal symptoms are so distressing, that people decide to take more of the drug or continue drinking just to feel what they consider normal. At this point, getting more drugs or alcohol can seem like a quick-fix solution to help them survive, but it only creates more trauma and difficulties.
Childhood Trauma and Addiction
Several cases and studies confirm the relationship between early childhood abuse and adult substance use disorders. In fact, children who have experienced specific challenges of Early Childhood Adversity have a higher risk of adult substance abuse. Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs define the challenging and traumatic experiences children can experience. Between 2015 and 2017, 61% of 144,000 adults reported having Early Childhood Adversity, with 16% of them reporting 4 or more combined traumatic experiences.
According to the CDCs Veto Violence site, some examples of ACEs include:
- Abuse (sexual, physical, mental, emotional)
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Parental separation or divorce
- Parental substance abuse
- Parental attempted suicide or death
- Being a refugee or experiencing war
- Mental health disorders
- Natural disasters
Children can also develop an addiction through their environment. They can, in fact, discover drugs at their guardian’s homes, or experiment through their friends due to peer pressure for example. To add, children can also grow up seeing a parent abuse alcohol, and later turn to alcohol to cope. For them, it may be a normal lifestyle choice, and they may not see it as a problem. Since children are still developing their personalities and social behaviors, it is easy to see how they can be scarred and traumatized if their loved ones don’t make them feel safe, seen, heard and protected.
Can Trauma Occur Because of Addiction?
Trauma is often a reason for addiction. But in some cases, trauma can occur due to an addiction. Addiction takes over the mind, soul and body of someone. In response, someone may act in concerning and strange ways. They may experience social ridicule due to stigmas surrounding addiction. In addition, relatives may feel ashamed, confused, hurt and angry for their loved one suffering from addiction. To add, someone can lose their job or suffer in school because of this addiction. For instance, if a high-functioning alcoholic starts to show signs of alcohol abuse, or fails to do their job properly, they can risk job loss. Once this occurs, it can create a spiral of negative life events that can impact them and their loved ones.
All of these factors can further make someone who battles substance abuse feel even more emotionally and spiritually broken. As a result of feeling broken, someone can develop depression, anxiety, and other conditions as a response. Further, someone who uses drugs may lose their grip on reality, forget who they once were, and do things they normally would not do for money for the next high.
Some cases report drug abusers becoming homeless as they cannot maintain both their jobs and their addiction. Additionally, it is not uncommon for women to turn to prostitution when homeless to support their habit. Grappling with these challenges can impact their self-confidence, self-image and sense of belonging. This lifestyle can bring about violence, sexual predators, being taken advantage of by dangerous people, powerlessness and more traumatic experiences. Moreover, if they have children in this lifestyle, it can be devastating for them. Thus a cycle of trauma, self-medication and survival continues.
Mental Health, Trauma, And Addiction
Addiction can commonly stem from ongoing mental health disorders. People who face depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other conditions can be more likely to have an addiction. In fact, addiction and mental health disorders are just as commonplace as the relationship between addiction and trauma. Someone who uses drugs or alcohol to hide an underlying mental health disorder can easily become substance dependent. This is called dual diagnosis.
A study noted adolescents with PTSD are 4 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 9 times more likely to have a dependence on hard drugs when compared to peers without PTSD. For conditions like PTSD or CPTSD, for example, using alcohol to soothe the central nervous system is usually the motivating factor for alcoholism or alcohol abuse. People may feel they have their trauma under control when drinking. For others, they may self-regulate by using prescribed medications like Xanax or Valium in excess. Thus, the need to soothe unhealed wounds can keep someone in a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse–even when they want to stop.
Addiction is complex and happens for many reasons. Since we don’t know why someone is addicted, it’s important to be kind and compassionate to everyone. Judging people for their actions rarely shows empathy and God’s love. Fortunately, people with addictions can consider rehab where they can access medications and therapy and get the support needed to heal trauma.