Staying Grounded: How Trauma Interacts with Addiction

Trauma is a commonly used term in the addiction treatment space, but it can be a surprisingly difficult concept to define. Some people associate trauma with physical injury or childhood events, but in reality, trauma encompasses a much wider range of issues.

Broadly speaking, trauma can be defined as: The experience of a real or perceived threat to life or bodily integrity (or the life or bodily integrity of a loved one) that causes an overwhelming sense of terror, horror, helplessness, and fear.

Trauma can be caused by physical or emotional abuse – such as sexual assault, experiencing or witnessing violence, losing a loved one, or even societal factors like racism and bigotry.

What Connects Trauma and Addiction?

While trauma can be a major contributor in someone developing a substance use or alcohol use disorder, the connection between trauma and addiction goes deeper than a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

Traumatic experiences are linked to the increase of chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine and can have lasting impacts on certain areas of the brain. Trauma may lead to mental health issues or disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Living with unprocessed trauma can induce “hyper arousal,” a state defined by increased stress levels and negative cognitions and emotions. These changes can also predispose people to using drugs or alcohol and substance use disorder (SUD)—particularly opioid use disorder (OUD).

Addiction and trauma both impact the frontal cortex of the brain, which controls things like compulsion and decision making. This makes it more difficult for the individual to make healthy, rational choices while also increasing their desire to cope with hyper arousal. And because the brain’s reward pathways are also affected by addiction, their need for substances grows even stronger, perpetuating the cycle of addiction and trauma, and compounding the impact on the brain.

Childhood Trauma and Substance Use Disorder

Experiencing trauma at any point in one’s life can be harmful, but when someone experiences trauma as a child it can be especially detrimental. This is because a child’s brain is still in the process of developing, and interrupting these developments with the chemical impacts of trauma can lead to persistent behavioral health issues.

To better understand the consequences of childhood trauma, the CDC paired with Kaiser Permanente to develop the adverse childhood experience (ACE) trauma assessment. This assessment consists of 10 questions pertaining to adverse life experiences and produces a score to indicate how the individual has been impacted by them. People with a high ACE score have significantly higher chances of substance misuse and overdose.

Treating Trauma and Substance Use Addiction Together

Because trauma and addiction are so closely tied, treatment is most effective when it addresses both issues. This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who enters treatment for addiction should immediately begin unpacking their trauma. Just like experiencing trauma, processing trauma can be difficult and painful. Some traumatic memories can cause adverse thoughts or behaviors when triggered, hindering the progress of recovery.

At New England Recovery Center, we address this by offering care that is trauma-informed. Trauma-informed care approaches treatment from the perspective that anyone could be dealing with trauma. By understanding the symptoms of trauma and taking steps to avoid triggering traumatic memories, this client-centered approach aims to keep these obstacles from holding back the progress of recovery. Trauma-informed care also helps individuals build healthy coping skills for both trauma and addiction, focusing on safety, connectedness, and regulation.

Trauma and addiction are heavy burdens to bear, but by following a treatment plan that builds healthy coping mechanisms while providing a sense of community and security, anyone facing these issues has a path to recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction or co-occurring disorders, call the New England Recovery Center today at 1-877-MyRehab.

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