Trauma and substance abuse are conditions that may not seem related but can occur in people who experience one, the other, or both.

Traumatic events can leave psychological and physical sequels that latch themselves in our minds, leading some to use substances to make these thoughts drift away rather than having to face them head-on.

Let’s explore the relationship between trauma and substance abuse to understand where it comes from and what we can do to manage their symptoms, gradually overcoming them to live a more fulfilling life.

The Link Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

Trauma is an event that leaves a lasting negative impact on our lives. The most common causes of trauma are witnessing death or being threatened with death, experiencing a serious injury, suffering sexual violence, and being exposed repeatedly to other people’s traumatic events.

The pain and stress of these experiences can be overwhelming, and some individuals might turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with their intense feelings or to escape from the memories of the traumatic event.

For people with trauma, substance use can become a form of self-medication. Substances can temporarily numb the pain and temporarily escape the distress. However, this relief is only temporary and can lead to a cycle where the person relies more and more on these substances to cope with their trauma.

As a result, relying on substances to cope with trauma can quickly turn into substance abuse and dependency, increasing the risks of long-term use, physical and mental health consequences, and overdose.

The substances can also worsen the emotional and psychological effects of trauma, creating a vicious cycle that can be hard to break.

How Does Trauma Lead to Substance Abuse?

The impact of trauma on the brain can make people more susceptible to substance abuse by changing the way our brains work, including the areas responsible for managing stress and emotions. These changes can make us more likely to seek stress and emotional relief through substances.

Data from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) shows that traumatic experiences, especially during childhood, have a strong correlation with substance use. Study subjects showed a high rate of substance dependence, including alcohol, cocaine, heroin/opiates, and marijuana.

Moreover, the more trauma someone experiences, and the earlier in life the traumatic event(s) take place, the more likely someone is to develop substance use and dependency later in life.

Symptoms of Trauma-Related Substance Abuse and Addiction

There are various common signs of trauma-related substance abuse and addiction. Here are some key symptoms to be aware of:

  • Increased or sudden use of substances. A sudden use or increase in the use of alcohol, drugs, and other substances is a common symptom. It can mean consuming a substance someone hadn’t used before, taking higher amounts, or consuming more frequently.
  • Reliance on substances for coping. Some people may start relying on substances to deal with daily stress, minimize emotional pain, or escape from memories of the event.
  • Poor social life. People with trauma-related substance abuse might withdraw from friends, family, and activities they once enjoyed.
  • Mood swings. Noticeable changes in mood, such as sudden anger, sadness, or anxiety. These mood swings can be unpredictable and intense.
  • Sleep disturbances. Common symptoms include insomnia, nightmares, or sleeping too much.
  • Physical health issues. Substance abuse can lead to aggressive weight loss or gain, unexplained aches and pains, and general deterioration in physical appearance.
  • Ignoring responsibilities. Neglecting work, school, or family responsibilities, often as a result of focusing on substance use.
  • Risky behavior under the influence. Some people display risky behaviors when under the influence, such as driving while intoxicated or having unsafe sexual encounters.
  • Feeling trapped in a cycle. Many people feel stuck in a vicious cycle where they are unable to stop using substances despite wanting to or understanding the negative consequences.

It’s essential to approach these symptoms with understanding and compassion, as they represent someone’s attempt to cope with harrowing experiences in the only way they currently know.

Dual Diagnosis for Trauma and Substance Abuse

Dual diagnosis means someone is dealing with two conditions at the same time. In this case, it’s a mental health condition (like the effects of trauma) and substance abuse.

The dual diagnosis treatment is a special approach that addresses both trauma and substance abuse together rather than seeing them as unrelated conditions. Treating one without considering the other is likely ineffective when dealing with two intertwined conditions like these.

For example, if someone is using substances to cope with the pain of trauma, treating only the substance abuse without addressing trauma might lead to an imperfect recovery that could prolong the conditions and increase relapse risks.

On the other hand, if we only treat the trauma and ignore the substance abuse, the patient might continue to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, restarting the cycle.

This kind of treatment looks at the person as a whole, considering all their experiences and challenges, and offers support in a more complete way. It’s about helping individuals find a path to recovery that acknowledges all parts of their journey.

Treatment Approaches for Trauma and Substance Abuse

The best way to help someone who faces substance abuse and also has a history of trauma is to seek dual diagnosis treatment. These are some of the most effective approaches to treating trauma and substance abuse.

Trauma-Informed Therapy

In trauma-informed therapy, therapists use techniques that address both the trauma and the substance abuse together. To create a whole-patient approach, they may use a combination of:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help change negative thought patterns.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) teaches the skills to manage emotions and reduce self-destructive behaviors.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rehabilitation Programs

These programs often offer a structured environment where patients can focus on recovery without dealing with daily triggers from different areas of their lives.

Rehab programs offer various services, including detox for withdrawal syndrome, ongoing medical care during the stay, psychiatric and psychological support counseling that may include the therapies mentioned above, and peer support groups.

Some rehab programs are inpatient, where individuals stay at the facility, while others are outpatient, allowing individuals to live at home while attending treatment sessions. The one best suited for you depends on the severity of your condition and the responsibilities you have to attend to daily.

Medication Management

Sometimes, patients benefit from medication to help manage symptoms of trauma or substance abuse. A healthcare professional who understands dual diagnosis must monitor the medications and dosages because not all medications work for everyone.

Family Support, Support Groups, and Family Therapy

Support from family, friends, and peer groups is vital for mental health and addiction treatments, as being surrounded by people who support you helps you stay motivated, makes the process less emotionally daunting, and promotes accountability.

Support groups, either for the conditions independently or as a dual diagnosis, can offer a space to share experiences and learn coping strategies from people who understand how you feel.

Additionally, family therapy can help family members understand the challenges of dual diagnosis and how to offer effective support.

Recovery From Trauma and Substance Abuse Is Possible

Trauma-related substance abuse is a complex condition that involves many factors, resulting in a deeply personal journey that is unique to everyone.

While being deep into substance use and trauma symptoms can feel helpless and impossible to crawl out of, it’s important to remember that recovery is possible. Many people who have experienced trauma-related substance abuse have received treatment and gradually developed coping skills to make their daily lives much more manageable.

If you or someone you know experiences trauma and substance abuse, we encourage you to seek trauma-informed treatment for substance abuse. Dual diagnosis treatment can be very effective and set the stage for a fulfilling life free of addiction and with more manageable emotional sequels of trauma.