If we want to help people in addiction recover, we need to pay attention to how often trauma is both an unspoken and unacknowledged experience for many of them. The consequence of missing this important connection adds to the struggle for those who are stuck in addictive patterns.
Obviously, there is an increased risk of trauma for substance abusers including accidents and injuries, exposure to violence and sexual trauma, as well as substance-related illnesses. People struggling with addiction also experience more traumatic losses.
While the high risks associated with substance abuse can be a source of trauma, most people who experience both trauma symptoms and substance abuse were exposed to significant adverse experiences long before their misuse of substances began.
Trauma symptoms differ greatly from person to person, but common symptoms of trauma include increased anxiety, fear, anger, and shame. Some people experience insomnia, nightmares, mood swings, agitation, or difficulty concentrating following a traumatic experience. Sometimes a person remains on “high alert” following traumatic experiences or they may be jumpy and easily startled. A person might feel more disconnected from themselves or others. There may also be very specific situations or places that trigger extreme emotional reactions.
It is far too easy to mistake some of the common symptoms of unresolved trauma for the negative consequences of substance abuse.
Those experiencing addiction are often anxious, have difficulty managing their emotions, and tend towards being impulsive. Complaints such as insomnia are frequent. But it is not helpful if we only attribute these experiences to a person’s use of substances or the chaos of life in addiction.
When we miss the connection between trauma and substance abuse, we increase the risk of seeing their struggles as resulting from their own choices and behaviours. When that happens, we will fail to provide the resources they need to deal with the underlying impacts of trauma. The process of recovery is already fraught with challenges.
Here are seven additional burdens our clients face when we miss the connection between trauma and addiction.
1. Too much of a focus on addiction leaves the initial issue of trauma unresolved.
Trauma symptoms disrupt normal life. It should not be surprising that someone who experiences any of these normal reactions to trauma seeks relief from these painful symptoms. And it should not be surprising that substance abuse or other forms of mood-altering becomes a way of seeking that relief. Initially, the use of mood-altering substances or behaviours may have helped medicate 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 use may provide a temporary “fix” for the experience of trauma symptoms, substance abuse only adds to the trauma symptoms and can make the symptoms worse. Besides making trauma symptoms worse, chronic mood-altering interferes with the ability to work through traumatic experiences compounding the ongoing struggle of trauma.(1)
People with both trauma and substance abuse disorders report that the symptoms of both either worsen together or improve together – if trauma symptoms improve, then there is an improvement in substance use patterns. But if trauma symptoms worsen then greater substance abuse occurs - a reality that demonstrates the vicious cycle operating between these two places of struggle where one problem feeds the other.(2)
Research shows that when a person has help dealing with their trauma symptoms, it has a greater positive impact on their substance abuse than the other way around – addiction treatment makes less of a positive impact on trauma symptoms.(3)
Although we need to treat both problems, we often put too much emphasis on treating substance abuse without working to lessen the negative impact of unresolved trauma.
2. Addicts with trauma histories have greater substance abuse problems.
Clinical studies of those who have both PTSD and substance abuse disorders clearly show these are people who have more challenges than those who experience only PTSD or only substance abuse. For those who have both, their drug or alcohol problems are significantly greater. Studies show they started using these substances at an earlier age – it is not uncommon for those who experienced trauma childhood trauma to begin regularly abusing alcohol or marijuana by age 11 or 12.(3)
Trauma also sets up people to have more years of problematic substance use since it tends to be used as a coping mechanism rather than for social reasons. Addicts with trauma histories also tend to use a greater number of different substances as well as using more of these substances. They also tend to experience cravings that are more intense(4), especially if those cravings are directly related to underlying trauma symptoms such as intrusive memories, fear, shame, anger, or other trauma triggers.
Trauma sets people up to engage in far more destructive patterns of substance abuse and the consequences of that substance abuse also tend to be far greater.
3. They also have greater mental health issues.
Not only does the co-occurrence of substance abuse and trauma create more dangerous addiction problems, but it also creates more problematic mental health concerns. While we know there is a link between trauma and poorer mental health functioning, those with traumatic life experiences as well as substance abuse struggle far more with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and other self-destructive behaviours.(3)
Clinical studies show that individuals with both PTSD and alcohol dependence are twice as likely to report a history of suicidal ideation compared to those who have PTSD but without a substance abuse problem. They are also six times more likely to have attempted suicide.(5) Other research demonstrates that those who are substance addicted are up to 9 times more likely to have a psychiatric disorder if they were abused as children than those who were not.
The complexities of co-occurring addiction and mental health issues are exacerbated for those with a history of trauma.
4. Addiction treatment programs are less helpful.
Although co-existing PTSD and trauma is a common issue for many of those seeking treatment for substance abuse, most addiction treatment centres do not adequately identify or treat trauma symptoms. This unfortunate reality has a negative impact on the success of a treatment program. Getting the support and help needed to deal with both substance abuse and trauma is challenging. If both issues are not recognized and addressed at the same time, treatment is often not as helpful, and the chance of recovery is poorer.
Trauma symptoms often interfere with the ability to experience the full benefit of treatment for substance abuse.(3) 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 make it difficult to participate fully in a treatment program.
5. Trauma symptoms are often mistaken for resistance.
It is crucial that counsellors recognize trauma symptoms for what they are. People with a history of trauma can find many aspects of traditional substance abuse treatment programs problematic. They may find confrontation frightening. They may respond to being challenged with defensiveness and anger. Or they may become reactive when they perceive they are being told what to do. If we look at these behaviours through the lens of trauma, we can understand these reactions are “normal” reactions to the loss of control they experienced in their previous traumatic experiences.
But if we view a client’s reaction as resistance or unwillingness, they are less likely to receive the support that helps them move forward. Instead of compassion and understanding, they often feel shame and judgment.
Too often, we dismiss traumatized clients as being not “ready” or not “willing” to move forward in dealing with their substance abuse issues.
6. Relapse occurs more often for those with unresolved trauma.
Even when there is a strong desire to stop destructive patterns of substance abuse, unresolved trauma often leads to a greater likelihood of a quick relapse following the completion of a treatment program.(3) Although some believe that trauma treatment should not occur until a person has achieved a period of abstinence out of fear that trauma treatment might trigger relapse, it is clear that those who have both trauma and addiction issues struggle to maintain sobriety.
Many substance-addicted individuals genuinely desire to stop abusing drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, trauma symptoms often increase when attempting abstinence because substances are no longer being used to numb trauma symptoms – there can be a dramatic increase in intrusive memories or reactions to trauma-related reminders. This sudden increase in unsettling symptoms when substance abuse stops 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.
For many substance-dependent individuals who have experienced the effects of past trauma, a vicious cycle is created: there is a sincere attempt at abstinence followed by an increase in trauma symptoms such as emotional triggers or intrusive memories. This increase in trauma symptoms then triggers a relapse. There is now greater shame, guilt and hopelessness making the next attempt at recovery even more challenging.
When the underlying trauma is not identified or resolved, it makes the process of addiction recovery seem an impossible task.
Part 3 in “Trauma and Addiction: The Link We Can’t Ignore” focuses on the specific reasons that people who experience trauma symptoms often abuse substances: "Why People Abuse Substances."
Here are all the posts in the series:
Part 1: The Problem is the Problem
Part 2: 7 Negative Impacts of Missing the Link
Part 3: Why People Abuse Substances
Part 4: Medicating Trauma Symptoms
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1 Stewart, S. H., R. O. Pihl, P. J. Conrod, and M. Dongier. "Functional Associations Among Trauma, PTSD, And Substance-related Disorders." Addictive Behaviors 23.6 (1998): 797-812.
2 Ouimette, P., R. H. Moos, and P. Brown. "Substance Use Disorder-posttraumatic Stress Disorder Comorbidity: A Survey of Treatments and Proposed Practice Guidelines." Trauma and Substance Abuse: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment of Comorbid Disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003. 91-110.
3 Schäfer, I., and L. M. Najavits. "Clinical Challenges In The Treatment Of Patients With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder And Substance Abuse." Current Opinion in Psychiatry 20.6 (2007): 614-18.
4 Berenz, E. C., and S. F. Coffey. "Treatment of Co-occurring Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Use Disorders." Current Psychiatry Reports (2012): 469-77.
5 Rojas, S. M., S. Bujarski, K. A. Babson, C. E. Dutton, and M. T. Feldner. "Understanding PTSD Comorbidity and Suicidal Behavior: Associations among Histories of Alcohol Dependence, Major Depressive Disorder, and Suicidal Ideation and Attempts." Journal of Anxiety Disorders 28 (2014). 318-25