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Discussing Trauma in Addiction Treatment

Addiction has been cast under a shadow of stigma that places the weight of responsibility on the individual. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states, stigma about substance use disorder (SUD) stems from flawed beliefs that addiction is a moral failing. Stigma can be detrimental to your well-being as it leads to feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame about your disorder. However, the roots of addiction are not a sign of a weak character but rather a reflection of your attempt to cope with distress in your life. Furthermore, discussing trauma is important to understand the development and chronic nature of SUD.

At The Guest House, we know that substance abuse and process addictions are often used as coping mechanisms to combat distress from trauma. When you experience trauma, it can be difficult to make sense of those experiences. As a result, trauma can be left to manifest itself in every part of your life. Discussing trauma can help you understand how trauma has impacted your maladaptive thinking and behavior patterns.

When people think about trauma, it is often limited to specific types of trauma. You may think of trauma as something that involves extreme violence and aggression like war, physical abuse, or sexual assault. If you have not been exposed to violence, you may question how trauma can impact your addiction. Thus, discussing trauma and its risk factors can give you insight into how addiction may have formed in your life.

Risk Factors for Addiction

SUD is complex, and its risk factors can be intricate and overlap. As Current Addiction Reports notes, identifying risk factors for SUD can help you uncover the roots of your addiction. In addition, understanding SUD risk factors gives you insight into how to pinpoint specific impairments in coping behaviors. Many risk factors associated with addiction in adulthood can be traced back to experiences in childhood and adolescence.

Listed below are some of the factors that can increase your risk for addiction:

  • Mental health disorders:
    • Difficulty managing distressing symptoms from different mental health disorders can increase your risk for SUD
      • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
      • Anxiety disorders
      • Depression
      • Conduct disorder (CD)
      • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
    • Having a parent with a mental health disorder
  • Externalizing behaviors:
    • Difficulty regulating behavioral responses manifests in childhood
    • Behavioral issues and disorders characterized by impulsive and destructive behaviors like ADHD and CD often co-occur with SUD
      • Misbehavior in school
      • Truancy from school
      • Aggressiveness
      • Delinquency
      • Deviant behaviors
      • Risky sexual behavior
      • Antisocial behavior
  • Internalizing symptoms:
    • Difficulty managing distressing thoughts and feelings manifest in childhood
    • The mental and emotional distress of internal disorder can impair the quality of your life and lead to self-medicating to alleviate symptoms
      • Depressive symptoms
      • Anxiety symptoms
  • Early substance use:
    • Experimenting or regularly using drugs and or alcohol before adulthood
  • Environmental factors:
    • Parental substance use
      • Exposure to a parent or caregiver who uses or misuses substances
      • Alcohol use and misuse
      • Smoking
      • Illicit drug use
    • Peer substance use
      • Socialization with peers who experiment with or misuse alcohol and drugs
    • Societal perspectives
      • A variety of complex factors contribute to emotional stress, financial stress, and relationship conflicts that increase the risk of unhealthy coping strategies
        • Structural inequalities
          • Racism
        • Low Socioeconomic status
        • Employment challenges
        • Community violence
        • Disparities in access to wellness knowledge and support resources
    • Traumatic life experiences
      • Exposure to maltreatment, neglect, and physical and emotional abuse in childhood and adolescence
        • Can stem from being abused, neglected, or mistreated
        • Seeing and or hearing about someone else being abused, neglected, or mistreated

Discussing trauma in relation to addiction gives you the chance to reflect on your potential experiences with trauma. In particular, discussing trauma highlights a relationship between the impact of childhood trauma and potential impairment in functioning in adulthood. Discussing trauma as a risk factor for SUD in more detail can deepen your understanding of what contributes to difficulties in dismantling self-defeating behaviors and removing addictive substances from your life.

Discussing Trauma as a Risk Factor for Developing Mental Health Disorders

According to Depression and Anxiety, early trauma exposure is highly correlated with developing a mental health disorder in adulthood. The intersectional relationship between trauma, mental health disorders, and addiction makes discussing trauma an important part of understanding the roots of self-defeating and destructive behaviors. Discussing trauma presents many questions about why trauma co-occurs so often with impairments like mental health disorders and addiction. Trauma itself is typically one or multiple distressing experiences that are or feel life-threatening.

Experiencing trauma in childhood compromises the structure and function of your brain when you are still developing. The disruption in functioning and proper development makes processing different experiences and stressors more challenging. Therefore, when you experience an excessive amount of stress, it overloads your system. When your system is overloaded, it impairs other areas of function, like your ability to regulate your emotions. Emotional self-regulation can be a part of coping in which you have a set of thoughts and behaviors to manage internal and external stressors.

However, coping strategies are not inherently positive or built on healthy thought and behavior patterns to help you process stress. You can also have negative or unhealthy coping strategies that impair your ability to respond to and manage stress. The coping skills you develop over your life, whether positive or negative, are born out of a few different factors. How you develop different types of coping strategies often stems from personality traits, your physical environment, and your social environment.

In early childhood, you start learning how to manage stress by watching your parents and or caregivers. Typically, your parents teach and behave in ways that present healthy coping behaviors. Unfortunately, many adults experience their own challenges with managing stress. Thus, many parents are often unaware that their coping strategies are unhealthy. As a result, discussing trauma highlights the cycle of unhealthy behaviors that can impede the well-being of generations of a family.

Trauma puts you under a significant amount of stress that leads to distressing thoughts and feelings. Without healthy coping examples, your ability to process the trauma or its co-occurring distressing thoughts and feelings is impeded. Your difficulty coping with traumatic stress in childhood then increases your risk for behavioral, mental, and emotional difficulties like depression and anxiety as a response to the stress. Moreover, your ability to recover from mental health disorders in childhood is further impaired because your brain is still developing.

Furthermore, the opportunity to develop adaptive coping skills is also disrupted if the adults around you are the source of your distress. When children are exposed to trauma, it is often the adults in their lives who help them feel safe and build resilience to recover from the trauma. Therefore, feeling distressed and unsafe with the adults in your environment as a child leaves little space for you to develop and respond to stress in healthy ways.

The role of parents and caregivers in discussing trauma presents a question about the impact of different types of trauma. On one hand, parents and caregivers can be a source of connection and resilience for children to overcome trauma. Yet, on the other hand, parents and caregivers can be the source of childhood trauma. Thus, discussing trauma and its different types can provide insight into how different types of trauma can lead to mental distress and addiction.

Types of Trauma Impact on Mental Health and Addiction

In “The Association Between Type of Trauma, Level of Exposure and Addiction,” Yafit Levin et al. note that different types of traumas can have different kinds of psychological effects and health outcomes. Trauma can be divided into non-interpersonal traumas and interpersonal traumas. Non-interpersonal trauma includes natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes. Interpersonal traumas include traumas that happen between people, like physical assault.

While both non-interpersonal and interpersonal traumas are distressing, interpersonal traumas are more likely to lead to mental health disorders. The high occurrence of physiological distress and disorders in interpersonal trauma relates to the personal nature of the trauma. In discussing trauma, interpersonal trauma is more likely to reduce your trust in others compared to natural disasters, where you often see people coming together to support each other. With interpersonal trauma, often, the people you are supposed to be able to lean on for support are the ones causing your distress.

When your sense of trust in others is impaired, you are more likely to turn to maladaptive coping strategies to deal with your distress. Moreover, the type of trauma exposure you experience can also impact your risk for maladaptive coping. Listed below are some of the types of exposure to trauma you can experience:

  • Direct exposure to trauma:
    • Experiencing or witnessing trauma firsthand
  • Indirect exposure to trauma:
    • Traumatization through your work
      • First responders
      • Doctors and nurses
      • Mental health professionals
      • Lawyers and judges
    • Learning about another person’s trauma
    • Exposure to trauma through media coverage

Even when trauma is indirect, it can feel as if that trauma has also happened to you. Whether your distress is rooted in direct or indirect trauma, your sense of safety in the world is disrupted. As a result, you may look to substances and other risky behaviors to avoid addressing distress. When your distress becomes too overwhelming, you do not know how to deal with it. Thus, discussing trauma gives insight into SUD and process addictions as maladaptive coping strategies for trauma.

Addressing Addiction as an Unhealthy Coping Strategy

Addiction is a form of an unhealthy coping strategy as it is often used in an attempt to avoid and suppress distressing thoughts and feelings related to trauma. As stated in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, you may self-medicate with substances in an effort to manage the psychological distress of traumatic life experiences. Trauma creates intrusive thoughts, images, memories, and emotions that force you to repeatedly re-experience your trauma. Therefore, relieving your trauma forms a cycle in which the stress of the trauma is repeatedly reactivated that you have no control over.

The rumination of trauma makes you feel out of control of your thoughts and feelings. Feeling out of control only adds to your distress and overwhelms your ability to function in your daily life. Thus, the desire to seek some level of control and relief from your distress is understandable. However, if you are not aware that your distress stems from trauma, it becomes difficult or impossible to build adaptive coping mechanisms.

Without adaptive coping mechanisms, you seek control, relief, and comfort in self-medicating with addictive substances and/or processes like risky sexual behaviors. Yet, the relief you may feel from self-medicating is temporary as those distressing thoughts and feelings come back. Thus, you feel compelled to misuse and or participate in risky behaviors more and more to suppress the flood of overwhelming emotions. You then accidentally create a feedback loop of maladaptive coping behaviors as the effects of substances and repeated maladaptive behaviors change your brain.

When you lean into maladaptive behaviors during periods of distress, your brain learns to associate those traumatic memories, thoughts, images, and feelings with threats. Perceiving your trauma-related distress as a threat teaches your brain to avoid those things. On the surface, avoidance might seem like a great solution to your distress. However, avoidance does not get rid of the distress. Avoidance makes you more fearful and overwhelmed when those distressing thoughts and feelings eventually come back.

Although maladaptive coping makes you more fearful, the reverse is true with adaptive coping. Therefore, discussing trauma presents an opportunity to break the cycle of trauma and self-defeating behaviors. You can still learn adaptive coping skills to replace the maladaptive ones and start to heal. By discussing trauma, you can expand your awareness of trauma and how it has impacted your life.

The Healing Power of Discussing Trauma at The Guest House

Discussing trauma can be a vital part of building tools to support true long-term recovery. Poor understanding of trauma has led to deficits in self-awareness of its impact trauma on individual lives. As noted in the Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), many people are unaware of the connection between their trauma histories and their current self-defeating behaviors. Thus, reaching out for support that considers you as a whole person can support you in addressing how every part of your life has impacted your well-being now.

Many treatment programs focus on treating the addiction itself with no regard for how your life experiences have affected you. On the other hand, a holistic approach to treatment is built to address your specific experiences and needs for healing and long-term recovery. At The Guest House, we offer diverse therapy options because we know everyone’s experiences are unique to them. We provide a wide range of therapeutic, evidence-based therapies like individual and group therapy to support your recovery. By customizing and combining therapeutic modalities, you can work with your clinicians to find the right recovery plan for you.

With individual therapy, you can find a safe space at The Guest House to share your traumatic experiences. Through individual therapy, you will develop tools for self-awareness and understanding of the relationship between trauma and your self-defeating behaviors. In addition, therapies like group therapy give you the space to find self-reflection and connection through community. Moreover, you can start building healthy coping skills with a support network through the connections you find in group therapy.

At the center of our work and philosophy is to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and dignity. With holistic care, every part of you is welcomed with open arms at The Guest House. Reaching out for support can help you deepen your self-understanding and dismantle your self-defeating behaviors. At The Guest House, you can rediscover that you are worthy of self-love, self-worth, and recovery.

Unaddressed trauma can lead to self-medicating with substances and other risky behaviors. Moreover, avoiding trauma can create a cycle of unhealthy coping strategies that increase your distress and self-defeating behaviors. However, reaching out for support and discussing trauma can help you build healthy coping skills and dismantle your self-defeating behaviors. Through a holistic approach to care, you can find whole-person support that addresses your specific experiences and needs for healing. At The Guest House, we are committed to offering a diverse variety of evidence-based therapies and therapeutic modalities to help you build a customizable and individualized treatment plan that will support you on your journey to long-term recovery. Please call us at (855) 483-7800 to learn more today.