The Relationship Between Trauma Disorders and Addiction

A study found that 40 percent of inpatients in a substance use facility also met the criteria for PTSD; there is a clear connection between trauma disorders and addiction. But, what is a trauma disorder, how do they affect substance use, and how can they both be treated? The following discussion should answer these questions.

Dealing with a trauma disorder is difficult and trying to recover from an addiction on top of that can feel impossible. Our treatment specialists can help. We can direct you to a topnotch rehab facility that works with trauma disorders. Call 800-598-5053 (Who Answers?) and get started finding a treatment that can work for you.

Trauma Disorders

Trauma Disorders

Those suffering from trauma disorders are likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

In order for something to be considered a trauma and stressor related disorder, a person must have been exposed to a traumatic or stressful event, like having one’s life threatened, witnessing a death, being raped, or enduring serious injury. The following are all acknowledged disorders that fall into this category:

  • Reactive attachment disorder: a condition specific to children who possibly received exceptionally negligent care and thus do not form a healthy emotional bond with their primary caregivers, typically their mothers, before age 5.
  • Disinhibited social engagement disorder: another condition specific to children who received inconsistent or insufficient care from a primary caregiver and, as a result, approach and interact with strangers because their ability to relate interpersonally to adults has been impaired.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): the most commonly known of these disorders, it is a condition triggered by a traumatic event—either witnessed or experienced—that causes flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thinking about the traumatic event.
  • Acute stress disorder: a condition triggered within one month of exposure to a traumatic stressor; sufferers develop dissociative symptoms, decrease in emotional response, difficulty finding pleasure, feelings of guilt about pursuing typical tasks.
  • Adjustment disorders: a group of symptoms triggered by an inability to cope with a traumatic event; sufferers feel stressed, sad or hopeless, and other physical symptoms.

Looking at this list, you can see why a person experiencing one of them would turn to substance use as a way to self-medicate or cope.

Post-Stress Substance Use

Studies draw a clear parallel between traumatic events and increased substance use, particularly alcohol consumption, in both humans and animals tests. But, an article titled “The Role of Uncontrollable Trauma in the Development of PTSD and Alcohol Addiction” points out that alcohol use increases after the trauma and not during it. This complicates the coping assumption because, if alcohol and other drugs are being taken to ease the trauma, why not use them during the event?

Experts point to the biology of the stress response: fight or flight. When a traumatic event occurs, it triggers a response that increases endorphin activity and after the event, severe withdrawal of endorphins happens.

Drug and alcohol use also triggers endorphins, so people who experience trauma may use drugs and alcohol to compensate for this loss. For sufferers of PTSD, the trauma is revisited again and again, causing an initial release of endorphins and a rebound withdrawal, during which the craving for drugs and alcohol increases.

Often, as symptoms increase, so does substance use.

Over time, relying on alcohol and drugs to compensate for trauma can turn into dependence and that can morph into addiction. The number of people seeking addiction treatment who also have a trauma disorder is staggering.

Treating Addiction in the Presence of a Trauma Disorder

Evidence supports the need for holistic integrated treatment, meaning that patients do best when both conditions are addressed as part of the treatment plan. An integrated plan may, according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs include:

  • Individual or group cognitive behavioral therapies: these therapies focus on anticipating common difficulties and improving self-control by developing successful coping strategies
  • Specific psychological treatments for trauma disorders, like prolonged exposure therapy, which helps patients approach trauma-related issues and decrease distress, or cognitive processing therapy, which gives patients gain understanding and new ways to handle distressing thoughts
  • Behavioral couples therapy for a significant other or spouse
  • Medications that manage the substance use disorder and/or the trauma disorder

The first step when you think that you are dealing with co-occurring conditions, like a substance use disorder and a trauma one, is to talk to a professional and explore your options. You need a treatment center with expertise in trauma disorders and we can help you to find one. Call 800-598-5053 (Who Answers?) today.


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