Often, the best way to understand someone’s current situation is to get to know their past. This very much applies to understanding how someone ends up with a drug addiction. Countless studies have found that substance abuse is a side effect of trauma. Sexual abuse, violence, and the death of a loved one, are just a few examples of the types of high-stress life events that can forever warp a person’s mental well-being. In this article, we’ll explore why unresolved trauma and addiction so often intersect from both a neurological and a behavioral standpoint.
What Is Trauma?
First, we must have an understanding of the concept itself. Trauma isn’t necessarily a specific horror to have witnessed or experienced. It doesn’t have to be something that was life-threatening, unexpected, or scary. Trauma is simply when a person has difficulty processing their emotional response to a distressing event. It is a state where a person–knowingly or unknowingly–has difficulty moving on emotionally.
It’s important to note that what’s considered ‘distressing’ is very much subjective and its definition will vary from person to person. As we are all individuals uniquely shaped by our background and life experiences, what one person finds seemingly ordinary and mundane could be immensely upsetting to another.
There are several types of trauma: Acute trauma, chronic trauma, complex trauma, vicarious trauma (secondary trauma), and adverse childhood experiences. All have the potential to leave lasting psychological damage that manifests itself both emotionally and physically. If you think you’ve made it through life mentally unscathed, think again. Research suggests that nearly 75% of those in the continent of North America have experienced some sort of traumatic event. Such occurrences include:
- Acts of terrorism
- Being kidnapped
- Being bullied
- Death of a parent as a child
- Life-threatening illnesses
- Natural disasters
- Physical or psychological abuse
- Sexual assault or abuse
- Sudden loss of a loved one
- Traffic collisions
- War (experiencing it as a soldier or a civilian)
What Are the Symptoms of Trauma?
Normally, when something stressful happens it activates the amygdala, the part of the brain that plays a big real role in our emotions and also threat detection. This in turn triggers our fight-or-flight response. Once the perceived threat is gone, the body returns to its normal physical and emotional state.
In the case of a person struggling with trauma, those negative feelings don’t fade and dissipate normally. The negative emotions linger, leaving the amygdala in a perpetually hyperactive state and cognitive functioning warped. The brain’s neurochemical balance becomes disrupted and often leads to long-standing emotional disturbances like anxiety, anger, guilt, diminished self-worth, or an inability to feel pleasure.
Physical symptoms of trauma can include:
- Chronic stress
- Digestive issues
- Racing heart
Can Trauma Change Your Personality?
The mind is not in an infallible steel trap. Exposure to traumatic events can physically change the brain itself. Therefore, trauma’s ability to change how the brain works is unsurprising. A traumatized person may become irritable, confused, and depressed, affecting how they interact with others and view the world as a whole.
Unresolved Trauma and Addiction: Where Substance Abuse Comes Into the Picture
There’s a high comorbidity between unresolved trauma and addiction. Studies have found that rates of substance abuse developing after a traumatic experience ranged from 25-76%–a telling story. These rates are even higher for adolescents that experienced some sort of trauma, in which 45-46% of them ended up with substance use disorders.
However, trauma alone is not a gateway to substance abuse. One thing it is a gateway to, especially the unresolved kind, is mental illness. The likelihood of developing a mental illness increases significantly when past trauma is involved. Numerous studies have consistently found that nearly 50% of all individuals with a substance abuse disorder also have a co-occurring mental disorder (that was 17 million adults in 2020, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health).
As a result of drugs, mental illness, or both, these individuals are more prone to engaging in risky and impulsive acts that put them at greater risk of experiencing another traumatic event, creating a harmful cycle.
Breaking the Cycle of Trauma & Addiction
There’s no single definition of how trauma will affect someone. It can cause a host of physical and psychological effects both in the short term and long term. These can range in severity and might vary depending on things like the traumatized person’s mental resilience and neurological makeup, their current stress levels, their personality, whether they’ve experienced such events before, or the proximity of timing to other traumatic events.
As such, there’s no singular treatment that can “fix” these issues. If you struggle with addiction and past trauma, addiction treatment centers have mental health professionals equipped to help you address both issues and resolve them. Find a rehab near you, today.