The Correlation Between Trauma and Addiction Exists – Here is How!

People cope with their trauma in different ways. Some people might withdraw from their loved ones out of guilt or shame. Others may throw themselves into their work, hoping that they will be able to suppress their symptoms by staying busy. Many people cope by trying to alleviate their symptoms by turning to substance use.

Why do so many people who experienced trauma also end up struggling with addiction? While substance use will only worsen the problem in the long run, people often cope with their pain through numbing, and alcohol or drugs can become a temporary escape from the impact of their trauma.

Here’s some information about why there is likely a strong correlation between trauma and addiction.

Brain Plasticity

The human brain is highly malleable. Your brain changes in response to your life experiences. Someone who lives through trauma may experience profound neurological changes.

After undergoing trauma, certain maladaptive behaviors may begin to seem rational. These survival mechanisms may not be healthy or productive, yet a trauma survivor feels that they must rely on these strategies to keep going and functioning in their lives.

Substance use can feel like a reprieve from the memories of trauma and using substances to relax may even seem like a logical solution.

Long-Term Mental Health Issues

While not everyone who lives through a traumatic event will develop a long-term mental health condition, many people who suffer through trauma eventually receive diagnoses for conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, or another mental illness.

The symptoms of these conditions can be debilitating and prevent people from fully participating in their own lives. Substance use is undeniably harmful. However, when someone feels trapped by these symptoms, anything that allows them to forget, to numb their pain, escape the symptoms or feel normal for a few hours can feel like relief.

High Cortisol

After living through trauma, your cortisol levels can change. Your body releases cortisol when you face a stressor. If you’ve experienced trauma, your body and mind might be constantly on the lookout for the next dangerous situation. You may be experiencing symptoms of hyper or hypo vigilance. You can read more about being outside of the window of tolerance here.

Therefore, your cortisol levels stay elevated, which would give you the energy to escape or fight back if necessary. Basically, you’re stuck in fight-or-flight mode. This is intensely uncomfortable—you always feel on high alert. Substance use can soothe these feelings in the short term, possibly leading to addiction down the line.

Modeling Behaviors

Some people do not suffer through one acute instance of trauma. Rather, they live through trauma over a period of years – complexed trauma cases. If this applies to you, you might struggle with addiction because you are subconsciously modeling the behaviors that you were exposed to in your household.

Growing up with parents who dealt with substance use can be traumatizing on its own. Sadly, many people who go through this experience as children emulate the same behaviors as adults. It can be difficult to break out of patterns that were established by authority figures in your life at a young age.

Self-Medication

Overall, addiction is a form of self-medication. To the trauma survivor, using a particular substance that makes them feel temporarily better is a way of feeling like themselves. It is a form of escaping reality that feels good. It is one way of forgetting about what happened, at least for a little while.

Yet, the negative effects of substance use will inevitably eventually worsen their symptoms. Self-medicating with substances like alcohol or drugs is fairly common for trauma survivors, and when someone is suffering, any form of relief can seem valid.

To achieve genuine, long-term healing, however, pursuing treatment for both trauma and addiction is recommended.

Are you struggling with addiction after suffering through a traumatic experience? Working with a therapist can help. Reach out to us today to discuss your options for scheduling your first session.

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