If you or someone you love is trying to recover from addiction, it’s important to know that unresolved trauma can contribute to substance abuse and addiction. It can also be a factor if you continue to relapse despite having a strong desire to stop destructive patterns of using. Trauma is often an unspoken and unacknowledged experience for many who struggle with addiction. The consequence of missing this important connection may be adding to the problems for those who are stuck in harmful patterns of drug and alcohol use.
There is no question that substance abuse increases the exposure to traumatic life events. You have a greater risk of accidents and substance-related health issues, greater exposure to violence, as well as traumatic losses that occur as the result of addiction. Even though substance abuse creates additional sources of trauma, many addicts were exposed to significant adverse experiences long before their misuse of drugs or alcohol began.
Trauma symptoms differ significantly from person to person, but common symptoms include increased anxiety, fear, anger, and shame. Some people experience insomnia, nightmares, mood swings, agitation, or difficulty concentrating. Sometimes a person remains on “high alert”, or they startle easily long after the threat has passed. There also might be very specific situations or places that trigger extreme emotional reactions. But it’s far too easy to mistake some of these common symptoms of unresolved trauma for the negative consequences of substance abuse.
When we miss the connection between trauma and substance abuse, it increases the risk of believing all your struggles are caused by your choices and behaviours. When this happens, you are less likely to get the tools and resources needed to deal with the underlying impacts of trauma.
If you have a history of trauma as well as problematic substance abuse, there are seven additional challenges you may face as you seek help:
1. Too much of a focus on addiction leaves the initial issue of trauma unresolved.
Trauma symptoms disrupt normal life in many extreme ways. It isn’t surprising that someone with a history of trauma seeks relief from the painful symptoms of trauma – or that substance abuse becomes a way of seeking that relief. Initially, the use of mood-altering substances or behaviours may have helped medicate your painful feelings. They may have been a way of avoiding difficult memories or circumstances. The problem with self-medicating as a way of managing trauma symptoms is that it leads to out-of-control patterns while still leaving the initial issue of trauma unresolved.
Although substance abuse may provide a temporary “fix” for your trauma symptoms, it only adds to the problem by making the symptoms worse. It also interferes with the ability to work through the traumatic experience.
Research demonstrates that help dealing with trauma symptoms has a greater positive impact on substance abuse than the other way around – addiction treatment makes less of a positive impact on trauma symptoms.
2. Addicts with trauma histories have greater substance abuse problems.
They often use a larger number of different substances as well as using more of these substances. If you experienced childhood trauma, you are more likely to have started abusing substances as early as age 11 or 12. Trauma also sets you up to have more years of substance abuse if it was used as a coping mechanism rather than for social reasons. You may also experience more intense cravings, especially if those cravings are directly related to underlying trauma symptoms such as intrusive memories, fear, shame, anger, or other trauma triggers.
Trauma can lead you to engage in far more destructive patterns of substance abuse – and the consequences of that substance abuse are far greater.
3. Your risk of severe mental health issues increases.
Those with traumatic life experiences as well as substance abuse struggle far more with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and other self-destructive behaviours. They are also six times more likely to have attempted suicide. Other research shows that those who are substance addicted are up to 9 times more likely to have a psychiatric disorder if they experienced trauma as children than those who were not.
Trauma and addiction impact your mental health in very detrimental ways.
4. Addiction treatment programs can be less helpful.
Trauma symptoms can interfere with your ability to experience the full benefit of treatment for substance abuse. Some of these trauma symptoms include high levels of anxiety and panic, nightmares, difficulty feeling safe in groups, feeling overwhelmed in new situations, fears of giving up control, easily triggered emotions of fear, shame, or anger as well as patterns of withdrawing or shutting down when overwhelmed.
Many common trauma symptoms might make it difficult for you to participate fully in a treatment program.
5. Trauma symptoms are often mistaken for an unwillingness to get clean and sober.
With a past trauma history, you may find confrontation difficult – you might shut down or respond with defensiveness and anger. Or it may be too painful to look at the consequences of your behaviours, so you act as if you haven’t done anything wrong. Instead of the compassion and understanding you need, you might be shamed or judged. When we look at these behaviours through the lens of trauma, we can understand these are “normal” reactions to the loss of control you experienced in past traumatic experiences.
Some of your trauma symptoms might make it seem like you are not “ready” or not “willing” to deal with your substance abuse problems.
6. Relapse occurs more often for those with unresolved trauma.
Even if you have a strong desire to stop destructive patterns of substance abuse, unresolved trauma can increase the risk of a quick relapse after a period of abstinence. The reason for this is that trauma symptoms often increase when you stop using substances because mood-altering substances are no longer numbing trauma symptoms. This sudden increase in unsettling symptoms during abstinence often triggers an overwhelming desire to mood-alter.
Abstinence may not diminish trauma symptoms but may, in fact, trigger them.
7. It increases the hopelessness about the possibility of recovery.
If you have experienced the effects of past trauma, a vicious cycle often gets created. Once you stop using drugs or alcohol, trauma symptoms such as anxiety, emotional triggers, and upsetting memories start to surface again. This increase in trauma symptoms often triggers a relapse. And now you feel more shame and more hopelessness making the next attempt at recovery even more challenging.
If your underlying trauma is not identified or resolved, it makes the process of addiction recovery seem an impossible task.
If you have experienced some of these additional challenges in your search for help with your addiction, I encourage you to find a counsellor who has training in both trauma and addiction. I hope you continue to find what helps you on your journey into greater health and recovery.
The next instalment in “Trauma and Addiction: The Link Can’t Be Ignored” focuses on the specific reasons that people who experience trauma symptoms often abuse substances - "Why People Abuses Substances".
Here are all the posts in the "Trauma and Addiction: The Link Can't Be Ignored" series:
Part 1: The Problem is the Problem
Part 2: How Ignoring This Hurts Your Recovery
Part 3: Why People Abuse Substances
Part 4: Feeling No Pain