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Is Trauma the Root of Addiction?

You are a product of all your experiences. Therefore, through your experiences, you form a perspective on how you think, react, and engage with all that you encounter in your life. Maybe you remember the pain you felt the first time you slid down a hot metal slide in the summer. From the experience, you learned not to wear shorts or to wait until the sun moved before you went down the slide. It is through experience that you learn how to behave and cope with different situations. Thus, understanding the root of addiction means learning to recognize where these unhealthy behaviors have come from.

At The Guest House, we believe that, for many people, the root of addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders stem from traumatic life experiences. Through unaddressed trauma, you may develop maladaptive coping strategies, like substance use, as a means to self-medicate those difficult-to-process thoughts and feelings. We believe that uncovering the traumas of your life can support deeper recognition of the root of addiction to start building a healthier you for your long-term recovery.

If you have never considered the potential trauma of your past, you may be wondering how you could have trauma. Representations of trauma in media often highlight the unimaginable violence soldiers witness in war or the physical abuse women experience. While these media representations are certainly examples of trauma, it is vital to understand that traumatic life experiences are not solely limited to physical violence.

What Is Trauma?

According to the article “Trauma” from the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is an emotional reaction to a threatening event or events that has a prolonged negative impact on your physical, psychological, and social well-being. Experiencing a traumatic event, like a storm or a car accident, is not uncommon, and the emotional distress you experience is often short-lived. However, long-term symptoms can make it difficult to move beyond the trauma and live your life.

Moreover, it can be difficult to recognize traumas that may not feel as obvious as violence or events that you are less likely to be exposed to on a regular basis in your life. As noted in an article from MedlinePlus, traumatic events can happen once, multiple times, or occur over an extended period of time. Furthermore, the duration and frequency of traumatic events can decrease your resilience and ability to adapt to different situations.

The Root of Addiction and Trauma Frequency

Traumatic events may occur as single incidents, repeated occurrences, or sustained experiences over time. Single trauma is typically limited to a singular event or point in time. Some examples of a single trauma may include a car accident, sexual assault, or the sudden death of a loved one.

Next, there is repeated trauma, which is a series of traumas that happen to you over time. Some examples of repeated trauma may include sexual and or physical assaults, witnessing repeated injuries, and experiencing multiple seemingly unrelated traumas across your life. First responders and other medical and emergency personnel are especially subject to repeated trauma from job-related exposures.

Lastly, there is sustained or chronic trauma, in which repeated traumas occur for an extended period of time. Some examples of sustained trauma may include continued abuse in childhood, intimate partner violence, chronic poverty, and high-stress environments. Assumptions may lead people to think repeated and sustained trauma is more damaging than single-event trauma, as many people have recovered from single-event trauma without specific trauma intervention. However, just because a traumatic event occurred one time does not mean you cannot have persistent and prolonged symptoms that impede your well-being.

In other words, the duration of trauma does not necessarily equate to less or more severe traumatic stress symptoms. Any form of trauma can cause emotional distress that erodes your ability to build and use healthy coping strategies to process those emotions. Therefore, the root of addiction in trauma can even stem from events that feel small or inconsequential to you. Becoming familiar with different types of trauma can help you uncover the traumas that have impacted you and deepen your understanding of trauma as a root of addiction.

Types of Trauma

The key characteristics of traumatic experiences can be quite broad and influence how you respond to them and or how others treat you. Listed below are some of the broad types of trauma you can experience:

  • Natural events:
    • Typically unavoidable
    • Can impact a small number of people
      • For example, property damage during a storm
        • A tree falls on a car
        • Downed power line
        • Power outage
    • Multiple people and or communities can be impacted
      • Hurricane
      • Tornado
      • Flood
      • Tropical storm
      • Earthquake
      • Some wildfire
  • Human-caused:
    • Typically a result of human error or design
      • Technological failure
      • Accidents
      • Intentional harm
      • War
  • Individual trauma:
    • Happens to only one person
    • It can be a single event
      • Sexual assault
      • Physical assault
      • Robbery
      • Serious physical injuries
      • Divorce
    • Multiple or prolonged events
      • Sexual abuse
      • Life-threatening illness
    • May not receive adequate support and concern
    • Less likely to share trauma experience
    • Decreased chance of validation experience from others
    • More likely to experience feelings of guilt and shame
  • Group trauma:
    • Impacts a particular group of people
      • They share a common identity and history
      • Share similar activities and concerns
    • First responders
      • EMTs
      • Firefighters
      • Police officers
    • Emergency medical personnel
    • Military officers and service members
    • Gang members
    • Other high-risk jobs
      • Commercial fishers
    • Likely to experience repeated trauma
    • More likely to avoid talking about experiences outside of the group
    • Less likely to seek support outside of the group
  • Community and culture traumas:
    • Can erode a sense of safety within communities
    • It can involve violence
      • Hate crimes
      • Threats
      • Sexual and or physical assault
      • Robberies
      • Gang-related violence
    • Systemic systems
      • Indifference or low responsiveness to specific communities and cultures in distress or crisis
      • Prejudices
      • Disenfranchisement
      • Health inequalities and disparities
    • Attempts to dismantle systemic cultural practices, resources, and identities
  • Historical trauma:
    • Far-reaching traumatic events that impact generations of an entire culture
    • Genocidal policies
    • Increased risk for negative health outcomes across generations
      • Black Americans or African Americas
        • Enslavement
        • Lynching
        • Segregation
      • Native Americans or Indigenous Americans
        • Forced assimilation
        • Enforced relocation to reservations from generational homelands
      • Jewish people
        • The Holocaust
  • Mass trauma:
    • Impacts a large number of people directly or indirectly
    • Typically includes significant loss of life and property
    • Widespread disruption of daily routines and services
    • Can include natural and human-made disasters
    • Chain reaction trauma
      • Difficult to process a trauma before another one occurs
  • Interpersonal traumas:
    • Typically repeated or sustained trauma that occurs between people who know each other
      • Physical and or sexual abuse
      • Elder abuse
      • Intimate partner violence
  • Developmental traumas:
    • Specific events or experiences that occur during any developmental life stage
    • Typically later influences development, adjustment, physical health, and mental health
    • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
      • Bullying
      • Physical abuse
      • Sexual abuse
      • Emotional abuse
      • Substance dependent parent
      • Parents with mental health difficulties
      • Incarcerated parent
      • Witness to intimate partner violence
      • Separation and or divorce
    • Significant loss with life-altering consequences during a life stage
      • Death of significant other
    • Tragedies outside of the expected life stage
      • Death of a child
      • Life-threatening illness in early adulthood

Looking at traumatic events that feel both obvious and subtle can support you in seeing the relationship between the root of addiction and trauma. Moreover, the types of traumas highlight how prevalent traumatic events can be in your life without realizing the impact these experiences can have on you.

Prevalence of Trauma

According to the article “Trauma and Its Aftermath” from Boston University, traumatic events are a common part of human existence. Traumatic events are such a commonality that a survey covering twenty-four countries found that 70% of people have experienced at least one traumatic event, while 30.5% of people have experienced four or more traumatic events in their lives. Moreover, in the United States, there is an 82.7% chance that you will be exposed to traumatic events in your lifetime.

The statistics for exposure and experience with traumatic events highlight how more common and impactful trauma is in your life than you likely knew. In addition, when the symptoms of traumatic stress are left unaddressed, it can lead to substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As noted in an article from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in the United States 6 out of 100 or 6% of adults will have PTSD at some point in their life. Moreover, in any given year, 5 out of 100 adults in the U.S. have PTSD.

While most people know that veterans are more likely to have PTSD than civilians, most people do not know that women are more likely than men to develop PTSD at some point in their life. Research shows that 8 of every 100 women develop PTSD compared to 4 of every 100 men. Considering the prevalence of traumatic events and their connection to the root of addiction, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of prolonged traumatic stress and accompanying mental health disorders like PTSD.

Signs, Symptoms, and Responses to Trauma

As noted in 2014, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a variety of typical reactions to trauma often dissipate over time with support from high resiliency and healthy adaptive coping strategies. However, reactions to trauma can be the root of addiction and develop into SUD and or mental health disorders when resiliency is low. Listed below are some common responses to trauma:

  • Emotional responses:
    • Initial reactions
      • Fear
      • Sadness
      • Anger
      • Guilt
      • Shame
    • Difficulties regulating emotions
      • Anger
      • Anxiety
      • Sadness
    • Emotional extremes
      • Overwhelmed
      • Numb
    • Increased high-risk behaviors
    • Disordered eating
    • Compulsive behaviors
    • Self-medicating with substances
  • Physical responses:
    • Aches and pain with no clear physical cause
    • Sleep issues
    • Stomach issues
    • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Cognitive responses:
    • Excessive or inappropriate guilt
      • Trying to make sense of the trauma
    • Cognitive errors
      • Perceiving situations with any similarity to the trauma as dangerous
    • Idealization
      • Rationalization of perpetrator’s behavior
    • Intrusive thoughts and memories
      • Happens without warning or desire
      • Can trigger intense emotional and behavioral reactions
    • Hallucinations and delusions connected to the trauma
    • Triggers; any sensory stimuli that remind you of the trauma
      • Noise
      • Smell
      • Texture
      • Visual
      • Temperature
      • Can be obvious or subtle
    • Flashbacks
      • Re-experiencing trauma as if it is happening at that moment
      • Typically last a few seconds
      • Can be brought on by a trigger
      • Occurs with increased physical vulnerability
        • Fatigue
        • Stress
      • Can occur without clear stimuli
  • Behavioral responses:
    • Attempt to reduce tension and stress
      • Avoidance
      • Substance use
      • Compulsive behavior
      • Impulsive behavior
      • Self-injurious behaviors
    • Difficulty make decisions
    • Reenactment of trauma
    • Self-harm and self-destructive behaviors

The responses and symptoms of traumatic stress showcase how traumatic experiences can negatively harm your well-being, even when you have high levels of resiliency to support your recovery. It is important to recognize how a lack of healthy coping tools can support the root of addiction as trauma.

Understanding the Root of Addiction in Trauma

According to an article from the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, SUD and trauma frequently co-occur with each other. Moreover, as the article notes, 35% of people with PTSD are also dependent on alcohol. The correlation between SUD and trauma as a root of addiction is not unsurprising, as trauma has a profound impact on your mental and emotional well-being. Not only do traumatic experiences take a toll on your thoughts and feelings but it can be difficult to recognize, process, or even talk about trauma with others.

There is an understandable desire to not relive experiences that have caused distress that impeded your daily life. However, when the symptoms of trauma are left to fester, those negative thoughts and feelings only worsen over time. Thus, you can see trauma as a root of addiction as you seek unhealthy ways to deal with your distress. For instance, self-medicating with substances is a common way to engage in avoidance or suppression of psychological distress. Furthermore, trauma not only acts as a root of addiction to substance use but also addiction to self-destructive behaviors and tendencies.

The Root of Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

An article in the Depression and Anxiety Journal notes that children are often resilient to trauma, but exposure to trauma early in your life increases your risk for mental health disorders in adulthood. In addition, early trauma also increases your risk of developing a co-occurring SUD. The root of addiction is seen in 70% of teenagers with SUD who also have a history of traumatic experiences like physical and sexual assault.

Moreover, there is a high co-occurrence of SUD and PTSD, as difficulties regulating your emotions can inform engagement in self-medicating practices. The use of substances not only impacts your response to trauma, but further alters your mind in the way you think, feel, and behave. Thus, as a root of addiction, trauma becomes entangled with substance use and mental health disorders, and each condition affects the other. Trauma-specific care has become an important tool in recovery to truly treat the whole person and uncover the root of addiction to support long-term recovery.

Healing With Trauma-Specific Care at The Guest House

At The Guest House, we know trauma is a root of addiction that can leave you feeling unsafe and unable to function in your life without substances. It may not always be clear to you, but the weight of the trauma you carry with you every day can have a profoundly negative impact on you and your life. Trauma can erode your sense of self, your relationships, and your resilience to other traumas and difficulties life throws at you. Moreover, unhealthy self-defeating behaviors like substance use are born out of trauma as the root of addiction, which leaves little room for self-reflection and self-understanding to form healthier choices.

Therefore, our mission at The Guest House is to work in collaboration with you to uncover and process the root of addiction to start building a treatment plan that supports a healthier you in mind, body, and spirit.
In our work, care specifically tailored to address trauma is an essential tool for healing. Trauma-specific care gives us the space to treat the whole person as it addresses the co-occurring relationship between traumatic stress as a root of addiction and mental health disorders. Your relationship with trauma, addiction, and mental wellness may be complex, but it should never preclude you from getting the support you need and the opportunity for long-term recovery.

Experiencing trauma is a common part of life, from car accidents and a life-threatening medical diagnosis to bullying and divorce. However, trauma often goes unaddressed as many people do not realize how single, repeated, or sustained traumas can negatively impact their long-term well-being. When you do not have adaptive coping skills to work through trauma, it can lead to chronic distress and unhealthy coping strategies, like self-medicating with substances. Therefore, at The Guest House, we are committed to providing trauma-specific care to help you uncover the root of your addiction and build healthier coping strategies to support you on your journey to long-term recovery. Call us at (855) 483-7800 to learn more today.