Table of Contents
Going through a traumatic event can have a deep and lasting effect on a person. Even if he or she is able to come to grips with the event, there may be residual effects such as maladaptive coping behaviors. One of the most common of these is substance abuse, as trauma and addiction are closely linked.
When emotional pain is intense and persistent, such as following a trauma, a person might begin to self-medicate. The alcohol or pills may provide temporary relief, helping to numb the symptoms of depression or anxiety. With continued use, a substance use disorder may develop, which only compounds the mental health challenges caused by the trauma.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is the state of heightened stress response after witnessing or experiencing a shocking or disturbing event. The effects of the trauma invoke the fight or flight response. This is a physical response to the intense feelings of fear, danger, or the loss of control over your safety.
Examples of traumas include:
- Sexual assault.
- Physical assault.
- Natural disasters.
- Combat-related trauma.
- A serious car crash.
- The sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one.
- Witnessing a violent event.
- A history of childhood abuse.
- Witnessing a suicide or murder.
When the shock of the trauma does not resolve within a month, it is diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
While most people will overcome the shocking effects of living through a traumatic event, some will continue to suffer. If the symptoms of anxiety persist for a month or longer, it is then called PTSD.
PTSD is a mental health condition that features being emotionally “stuck” in the trauma. According to the NIMH, the diagnostic criteria that define PTSD include the following features:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom. This might be flashbacks, nightmares, or recurrent frightening thoughts.
- At least one avoidance symptom. This might be avoiding places, events, or things that remind the person of the trauma. Or it could involve ongoing attempts to block thoughts and feelings related to the trauma.
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms. These are being easily startled, feeling tense or on edge, sleep disturbances, and angry outbursts.
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms. You might have trouble remembering details of the traumatic event, or having negative thoughts about yourself or the world. Also, it could involve feelings of blame or guilt, or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed.
The Link Between Trauma and Addiction
Substance abuse is a common response to the anxiety and/or depression symptoms that may develop after experiencing a trauma. An article published in Current Psychiatry Reports states that about 50% of patients in addiction treatment also had PTSD.
This can be explained by the use of unhealthy coping strategies in the aftermath of a highly traumatic event. Some victims of trauma will seek the help of a therapist or use holistic strategies to overcome the effects. However, others may become dependent on a substance to relieve their emotional pain. When the substance abuse becomes a habit, a more complex problem then results.
How Trauma Affects the Brain
Trauma or PTSD can cause some people to have impaired function in the brain’s limbic system. The limbic region is where impulsivity, decision-making, and other executive functions occur.
When these functions are disrupted, compulsive use of a substance, or addiction, may result. The changes in the brain after trauma can prime the reward system to be responsive to the substance abuse.
Addiction develops over time with continued use of the substance. As tolerance to the substance increases, it causes the person to drink or use more. The brain responds to the substance, which alters the brain’s normal responses and messaging. As the brain adjusts to the constant presence of the substance, it forms a dependence on it.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment for Trauma and Addiction
If a substance use disorder develops along with the PTSD it is called dual diagnosis. This condition can be treated in the following settings:
When addiction and PTSD are coexisting disorders, the best treatment option is an inpatient dual diagnosis program. These programs provide the highest level of care, with 24-hour support and an integrated therapeutic approach. This involves treating both the mental health disorder and the substance use disorder at the same time. Dual diagnosis treatment includes a psychiatrist on staff to provide treatment. Therapies include exposure therapy, CBT, DBT, and EMDR.
Trauma and addiction can be treated in an outpatient setting if the substance use disorder is mild. Outpatient treatment is available in two levels of care, IOP and PHP, and allows the person to reside at home. An outpatient program involves one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and life skills classes.
Holistic Methods to Help Sustain Recovery
Because trauma or PTSD is related to anxiety disorder, it helps to learn techniques to promote a calm, relaxed state. Some of these methods include:
- Yoga. Hatha yoga has been found to help relieve trauma symptoms. This is due to the movements, poses, and focused breathing techniques that yoga features. Yoga can also slow the heart rate and breathing rate, which quickly relieves anxiety.
- Guided meditation. Guided imagery uses mental visualizing techniques to alter the physical and emotional state. Guided imagery helps reduce stress by focusing on the soothing images conjured up by the narrative prompts provided.
- Deep breathing. There are several deep breathing techniques to try out and see which is most effective for you. Deep breathing slows down your breathing and heart rate, helping you to reach a relaxed state.
- Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that trains you to focus on the here and now. It teaches you to take control of your wandering thoughts and to pay attention to the present sensory experience.
There is help for someone who is struggling with both trauma and substance abuse or addiction. Reach out today.
Capo by the Sea for Trauma and Addiction Recovery
Capo by the Sea is a premier dual diagnosis treatment program set in a beautiful coastal enclave. If you have been the victim of trauma and are now struggling with addiction, we are here to help. Call us today at (888) 529-2114.