The Harrowing Relationship Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

trauma and substance abuse treatment in connecticut

There is a clear, yet very complex, relationship between trauma and substance abuse. Up to two-thirds of people who battle post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also battle a substance addiction. More than 70 percent of adolescents in substance abuse treatment today have a history of trauma exposure. About 3 in every 4 substance-addicted women have experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime. The list goes on.

The statistics are extensive, confirming an uncompromising correlation between trauma and substance abuse: more often than not, they co-exist. Frequently, a traumatic event leads a person to use drugs. Sometimes, it is drugs and alcohol that lead to a traumatic event. By the time a person obtains proper treatment, trauma and substance abuse have usually become co-occurring disorders. And as a result, professionals must take an integrated approach to the treatment of each.

In order to understand the implications of trauma and substance abuse, it is important to understand what each one means, on its own. Substance abuse, simply put, is the misuse of drugs and alcohol. It is typically followed by, or associated with, a substance use disorder (i.e. a clinical drug or alcohol addiction), which is considered a disease of the brain. A substance use disorder can have an array of chronic, negative effects on the body and mind, including a person’s capacity for rational thinking and self-control. Substance abuse can also cause or rouse other mental health disorders.

Trauma, according to government sources, is defined as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Like substance addiction, trauma can happen to anyone of any age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, or background, however, it most commonly affects children and women. About 20 percent of people who experience a traumatic event will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, while many will develop other mental health disorders like addiction.

How Trauma Can Trigger Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is often prompted by trauma or trauma-related mental health disorders, such as PTSD. Flooded by feelings of fear or guilt, many people who are scarred by a traumatic event will turn to drugs or the bottle to cope. This is called self-medication. They will use drugs or alcohol in attempt to manage any distress from the trauma exposure – Painkillers, pot, and benzodiazepines are just some of the many examples. These substances provide temporary relief, either numbing emotional pain or helping the person escape difficult thoughts for a period of time.

The problem is, these substances wear off, and when they do, they are followed by extremely low moods and sometimes painful withdrawal symptoms. This can worsen the effects of traumatic disorders. A person must use the drugs again (and again) to re-feel positive, mind-altering effects. This is often where the addiction cycle begins.

Several studies have shown that, in up to 75 percent of cases of teens with substance use disorders, the drug use developed following trauma exposure. Young people, unsure of how to cope effectively, may turn to drugs or alcohol to “feel better.” It is said that a child who experiences four or more traumatic events in their early age – say, several bouts of physical abuse – is five times more likely to become an alcoholic, and up to 46 times more likely to become an injection-drug user than the general population.

Among women in particular, who are most susceptible to PTSD and also trauma-induced addiction, near 75 percent of those in drug treatment have experienced sexual or emotional trauma in their lifetime. More than half of these addicted women have experienced physical abuse.

Recent research also suggests that traumatic stress or PTSD may make it more difficult for people to stop using drugs and alcohol. If they are exposed to reminders of the traumatic event, they are more likely to show an increase drug cravings. Difficult feelings or memories can also trigger drug cravings, inhibiting people with unaddressed trauma from healing properly.

How Substance Abuse Can Be a Risk Factor for Trauma

Trauma does not always start the addiction cycle. Sometimes, substance abuse can lead to a traumatic experience in one’s life. We know that drug and alcohol use can lead to a slew of risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, physical violence, and driving under the influence. Often, these risky behaviors are followed by adverse or traumatic outcomes – sex without consent, serious injury, and car accidents are just a few. For many, these traumatic events can lead to long-term, trauma-triggered emotional consequences (and perhaps heightened substance abuse as a result).

Let’s put this into perspective. A college student gets black out drunk and is sexually abused. A teenager gets behind the wheel while high, and causes a car crash that kills the other driver. An unknowing and intoxicated adolescent decides to walk home from a party in an unsafe neighborhood, and is jumped violently along the way. All of these people may carry traumatic memories from these events for the rest of their lives, memories that create burdening feelings of anxiety, grief, and distress.

Research supports the notion that youth who already abuse substances such as alcohol or marijuana, may be less capable of coping with a traumatic event caused by their substance abuse (such as a drunk-driving accident). Adolescents with substance use disorders are twice as likely to develop PTSD following a trauma than their non-abusing peers.

Trauma-Informed Substance Abuse Treatment

In the past, the treatment of trauma-related disorders (such as PTSD) and substance use disorders were completely separate. In fact, the Boston Veterans Association explains that patients were frequently denied treatment for one problem, if the other was present. The clinical connection between trauma and substance abuse was not yet seen, and many co-occurring disorders were left untreated as a result.

Whether physical, sexual, or emotional, trauma can have a profound and lasting affect if unaddressed. In order to properly heal from a substance use disorder, a person must also get to the source of their addiction. If traumatic exposure is at the root of it, that must be handled and overcome. Coping mechanisms must be taught. Otherwise, the distress of the trauma is likely to surface, trigger drug cravings, and cause relapse down the road. The same goes vice versa. In order to effectively overcome trauma, a person must also address their drug abuse problems. Otherwise, the addictive chemicals, and the way they act within the brain, can re-provoke negative traumatic feelings and stressors. 

It is for this reason that today, trauma and substance abuse are typically treated at the same time, in the same place, concurringly. This is called an integrated or trauma-informed treatment approach. And it is one that is recommended by mental health experts and clinicians around the world.

Trauma-informed addiction treatment is an individualized treatment method that focuses on helping people (particularly women) heal holistically – mentally, emotionally, and physically – by addressing their deep-seated issues of the past. These clients are encouraged to open up and overcome past traumas, so that they can re-establish a positive sense of self. By addressing trauma head-on with substance abuse, women can learn alternative methods for coping, regain self-value and confidence, and learn how to trust and love others again. Through trauma-informed therapy, burdens are lifted off the shoulders of many women and men and substance abuse is no longer a go-to for temporary relief.

Trauma-informed care is a delicate and deeply impactful method of dual diagnosis treatment, and one that is prioritized at Turnbridge. Turnbridge’s treatment facility for young women is carefully equipped with trauma-informed specialists and therapists, who are able to diagnose and treat trauma through a variety of methodologies. Our counselors work with women every day in breaking down how trauma has impacted their lives – mentally, emotionally, and physically – and works to re-build those areas and put women on a positive path. Additionally, Turnbridge has a strong relationship with an established and well-respected PTSD clinic, for more intensive PTSD care.

Turnbridge is dedicated to providing women with a safe space to heal, away from potential harm or outside triggers. We believe in the empowerment, the voice, and the choice of each woman in our program. We emphasize peer support, trust and collaboration among both clients and staff, in efforts to provide women with the most supportive recovery environment possible.

55 to 99 percent of women in substance abuse treatment today report a history of trauma, making trauma a near-universal cause of drug abuse among women in the United States. The devastating relationship between trauma and substance abuse is clear – and if you or a loved one is battling these co-occurring disorders, it is important to intervene. Know that Turnbridge is here for you. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more about our trauma and substance abuse treatment programs for young women.