Trauma and Addiction: Co-Occurring Disorders

The connection between trauma and addiction is strong. Studies show that as many as 75% of traumatized people also show symptoms of drug addiction or alcohol use disorder. The two conditions are often prescribed as co-occurring disorders.

Oftentimes, an individual's drug addiction or alcoholism stems from their desire to cope with traumatic events. Chemicals offer a temporary form of relief from the pain of trauma, so it is easy for individuals to quickly become dependent on their drug of choice.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is the term used to describe the long-lasting effects of a violent experience. Individuals can be traumatized by living through physically or emotionally dangerous experiences. Other people are not victims of violence themselves but are impacted through witnessing violence done to others.

There are several different types of trauma. Physical trauma occurs the individual experiences bodily harm. Emotional trauma occurs when the psychology of the individual is damaged by experiencing or witnessing an event. Sexual trauma happens as a result of rape, molestation or another form of sexual misconduct. These three categories can overlap and can all have negative effects on the mental health of an individual.

Trauma can be caused by living through or witnessing any number of the following events:

  • Physical assault/abuse
  • Sexual assault/abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Sicknesses or medical procedures
  • War and terrorism
  • Neglect
  • Bullying
  • Separation or grief
  • Forced displacement

This is list is not exhaustive. Trauma can be caused by any event that subjects the individual to violence or extreme grief. If a negative experience is so jarring that it has an impact on their physical or mental health, it is said to be traumatic. A traumatized person often finds that their worldview was altered by the events that took place.

Trauma and Addiction: Co-Occurring Disorders

It is common for individuals to suffer from trauma and addiction disorder at the same time. This happens so frequently that the two conditions are often diagnosed as co-occurring disorders.

A co-occurring disorder (also known as a "dual diagnosis") happens when someone shows symptoms of both mental illness and addiction. In many cases, the patient's addiction or drug habit was onset by their traumatic experience.

In the effort to alleviate the symptoms that trauma can bring with it, the individual begins to use drugs or alcohol as a tool for coping. Before long, however, they may find themselves dependent on the drug.

Using illicit substances is not the proper way to treat the symptoms of trauma. Those who have suffered through traumatic events should seek proper treatment through therapy, counseling and support groups. If they've developed a serious drug addiction, they may need to go through detox or rehab. When someone is given the dual diagnosis of addiction and a trauma-induced mental illness, they will most likely need support from doctors, therapists, and addiction specialists.

No one ever decides to become an addict. People start using drugs and alcohol to cope with the negative emotions that are present in their lives. Traumatized people are particularly susceptible to addiction because they struggle with heavy, overwhelming emotions on a daily basis. Drugs and alcohol offer them a temporary relief from their own memories.

Anyone who has been traumatized by violence seeks to be in a state where they feel safe. Their body develops impulses for maintaining control over situations in order to avoid threats. Alcohol and drugs are one way that people attempt to take control over their own lives. A person who suffers from trauma and addiction often feels that drugs or alcohol are a way to regain control over themselves.

People who are traumatized might develop an addiction for several reasons. These reasons include:

Pain relief: Living with trauma is painful. Oftentimes, people who have lived through unsettling experiences desperately seek a way to feel better.

Finding safety: When you've lived a traumatic life, your own thoughts and memories can feel threatening. Drinking alcohol and taking drugs can offer a retreat from the danger of your own mind for a little while.

Making life tolerable: For some people, trauma can make it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Oftentimes, drugs and alcohol give traumatized individuals a temporary reason for living.

Reinventing yourself: In some cases, the traumatized person will blame themselves for the events that have occurred in their life. These individuals often develop an addiction as a way to see, think and feel like a different person.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

When we say that an experience is "traumatic", we mean that the experience has long-lasting physical or psychological effects on a person's body. Violent experiences such as rape, abuse or physical violence can leave mental scars on a person that are as, if not more, painful than the physical ones.

Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to understand the connection between trauma and addiction. While the connection isn't understood entirely, we are starting to understand why people who live through violent events are more likely to develop addictive tendencies. Trauma affects the brain in these ways:

The hippocampus, which is the mechanism in our brain that creates memories, can slow down when faced with a serious threat. A truly traumatic experience can cause the hippocampus to slow down to a point where it never returns to normal. Instead of storing old memories in the proper part of the brain, then, bad memories are kept in the section that is reserved for newer, short-term memories.

As a result, the individual will often think about (or even re-live) their traumatic experience on a regular basis. They may seek out drugs or alcohol in order to cope with their recurring memories.

The cortexis the section of the brain where decisions are made and processed. Usually, our cortex is where logical thinking occurs. Because traumatic experiences are often illogical and don't make sense, they can affect how our brain determines what is rational and what isn't.

Even if a person understands that they have an addiction and that drugs are having negative effects on their life, they may continue to keep using. Experiencing or witnessing violent events can have a disastrous impact on our ability to make good, safe choices.

The threat detection mechanism in the human brain is stimulated during a violent experience. This mechanism is called the amygdala. When the amygdala is stimulated beyond a certain threshold, it can have long-lasting consequences. The experience may program the amygdala to become hypersensitive to threats. As a result, the individual might experience anxiety or fear in everyday situations for the rest of their life.

Using drugs and alcohol is one way that people try to overcome their fears. Some who struggles with trauma might become addicted to drugs if they self-medicate on a regular basis.

Anxiety and Addiction Recovery

Types of Trauma

Learn more about different types of trauma and how it relates to addiction.

When someone experiences a traumatic event in the early years of their life, this experience often shapes the adult that they become. Because traumatized people tend to seek out forms of relief and methods of control, many children who live through trauma develop addictions as they get older.

Research has shown that people were victims of traumatic events as children are nearly 20x more likely to develop addictions as teens or adults. Early victims of trauma are also far more likely to develop depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses that are known to cause substance abuse habits.

Oftentimes, traumatic relationships can be addictive in and of themselves. The way that the human brain responds to the patterns of an abusive relationship actually resembles an addiction. When an abusive partner shows love and affection to their significant other, the abusive person's brain floods with dopamine and serotonin. These are the chemicals that make us feel happy. 

It is common for our brains to receive a rush of dopamine when we spend time with someone we love. However, in an abusive relationship, the affection that triggers this rush is often followed by a period of abuse. During that time, the abuse victim's neurotransmitter levels will drop, leaving them craving more love. This person's addiction is fed when the abuser once again shows them affection, creating a cycle that can be hard to escape.

This cyclical process is known as "trauma bonding". A victim of trauma bonding will often need therapy. If they are still in the relationship, therapy or counseling can empower them to get out safely. If they were traumatized by a past relationship, therapy can help them to cope with their symptoms.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed when the effects of a traumatizing experience severely impact a person's mental health. The symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person but can include flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia. The condition may also affect the individual's mood, causing them to become irrationally angry in certain situations. Like other forms of mental illness that are triggered by traumatic events, PTSD can stem from any number of violent encounters. Most often, the condition is associated with veterans of war.

Oftentimes, people with PTSD use drugs and alcohol to quiet their symptoms. They may get drunk to forget about their violent memories or use drugs to fall asleep at night. Roughly 60% of people with PTSD struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Those who suffer from the condition are almost four times more likely to develop a drug abuse habit than other people. While this fact is alarming, there are a variety of treatment resources available to individuals who struggle with a co-occurring diagnosis.

Treatments for Co-Occurring Addiction and Trauma

Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is not the proper way to overcome trauma. It can only lead to worse problems. The best way to fight addiction is to find psychological support. Therapy and group support meetings, for example, can provide the addict with a safe place to talk about their issues.

Addicts who have lived through traumatizing experiences are best treated in rehabilitation programs. In a rehab program, the addict will work with addiction specialists and mental health professionals who can help them to address the root causes of their addiction.

Many drug addicts who attend rehab have been traumatized in one way or another. This makes rehabilitation programs a great place for addicts to connect with other people who have had similar experiences.

There are several treatment resources available to people with co-occurring disorders. Some of these resources include:

When someone is addicted to a drug, the first step toward recovery is detoxing. Detox is the process through which someone stops using and flushes the remaining traces of the drug out of their system. Th withdrawal process can take up to a week or so, depending on the nature and severity of their habit. Once they've completed detox, the addict can start to address the psychological aspects of their addiction.

Oftentimes, non-addictive medications are used to treat the side effects of trauma. Some effects like depression and anxiety are generated by chemical imbalances in the brain. By correcting these imbalances, the trauma victim may find that they are able to think clearer and can work with therapists to confront their addictive tendencies.

In an inpatient treatment program, the addict will spend time living in the rehab facility. Each day, they'll meet with therapists and counselors to talk about their trauma and to work toward overcoming it. They'll also attend regular group meetings with other recovering addicts and victims of traumatic experiences.

IOPs are similar to inpatient treatment except the addict will live outside of the facility itself. They'll attend therapy sessions and group meetings on a regular basis as they work toward living a sober life.

Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care, also known as "TIC", is a method of treatment that accounts for the difficult experiences the individual has lived through. It is a holistic approach to treating trauma that aims to empower its patients. Instead of approaching each patient as a victim, trauma-informed care treats them as a survivor who is strong and resilient. The goal of each TIC program is to help the individual understand the causes of their mental health problems. It will also equip them with the mental tools for moving forward.

TIC programs are usually comprised of individual therapy sessions and group support meetings. In each of these sessions, the person will work to understand how trauma has impacted their life. They will also develop positive coping skills for responding to triggering events when they occur.

TIC's emphasis on developing coping skills makes it particularly helpful for addicts as they'll learn how to manage their trauma without the use of drugs or alcohol.

Forms of Therapy for Co-Occurring Disorders

There are several types of therapy that are used to treat traumatized people. A few of them include:

CBT: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used in the treatment of PTSD (as well as other trauma-induced disorders) and addiction. Essentially, this form of therapy treatment aims to help addicts identify triggering situations. Those who have lived through traumatizing events often get the desire to drink or use drugs in stressful situations. CBT equips addicts with the psychological tools they need to work through these triggering events.

EMDR: Oftentimes,our impulse reaction to a situation is not the one we'd make if we were thinking more clearly. For traumatized people, initial responses to stressful situations can be particularly dangerous. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that helps people to better cope with stressful situations. By teaching the individual how to maintain their composure when triggering situations occur, they can avoid making detrimental choices like using drugs and alcohol.

Trauma support groups: Sometimes, the best people to talk about trauma with are other survivors. There are trauma support groups held regularly in cities around the world. These meetings give survivors the opportunity to meet others who have experienced traumatic life events. Attendees share their stories and help one another to develop a sense of confidence.

It's Time to Overcome Trauma and Addiction

Working through co-occurring disorders isn't an easy task. For people who've lived through traumatic experiences, especially, overcoming an alcohol addiction or drug abuse habit can be quite difficult.

Fortunately, there are a variety of resources available for people with co-occurring disorders. Therapists, doctors and rehab specialists everywhere are ready to help you start the recovery process. If you've been through a traumatizing experience and are struggling with addiction, it could be time to reach out for help.

Talk to a Rehab Specialist

Our admissions coordinators are here to help you get started with treatment the right way. They'll verify your health insurance, help set up travel arrangements, and make sure your transition into treatment is smooth and hassle-free.

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