Trauma and addiction are two complex and interconnected phenomena that occur in countless lives worldwide. Understanding their relationship is vital for anyone affected by either or both, as well as those who seek to support them. How does trauma affect individuals? How do those effects result in or exacerbate addictive behaviors? Learning more about the ways trauma and addiction intersect helps Licensed Clinical Psychologists and their clients find greater success when treating both disorders. Explore the relationship between trauma and addiction and see how proper treatment addresses both disorders with this overview.
The Origins of Trauma
Trauma arises from shocking, distressing, or deeply threatening events that can leave lasting marks on the mind and body. Traumatic experiences take many forms—from natural disasters and accidents to experiences of abuse, violence, or loss—and they can vastly differ in severity. Despite their wide-ranging nature, all forms of trauma share a common ability to disrupt our sense of safety, resilience, and self-efficacy.
When faced with a traumatic event, the brain undergoes a physiological response that can have long-term consequences. The release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, alongside a surge in sensory information, can alter the brain’s pathways. These hormones leave profound effects on memory, emotional regulation, and even your perception of time and space.
Physical, Mental, and Emotional Symptoms of Trauma
There is no one way to describe trauma and its symptoms. Everyone faces different challenges based on their circumstances and the type of trauma they face. Emotional symptoms might include numbness and depression or hypervigilance and anxiety. Someone might even feel angry or irritable because of their experience with trauma.
There are also numerous physical symptoms of trauma. It can hinder digestive health and lead to the development of chronic pain. Headaches, muscle aches, and sleeping difficulties due to insomnia or nightmares are also common symptoms of trauma.
Trauma Increasing the Risk of Addiction
So, what is the link between trauma and addiction? Put simply, the lasting effects of trauma increase the risk of developing addictive behaviors. Symptoms such as depersonalization and numbness can make addictions like substance use, gambling, or food addictions more enticing.
Individuals turn to various addictions as a way to cope with or escape from symptoms. The temporary reprieve of addictive substances or behaviors can jolt you out of feeling stuck or numb. Additionally, the short-term pleasure from the same addictions can provide relief from ongoing stress or pain that results from trauma.
A Dysregulated Stress System
One of the main ties that creates the relationship between trauma and addiction is the body’s stress system. Think of your stress system as a built-in security response; it is responsible for helping you react quickly and effectively to danger. When you are in a dangerous situation, an automatic stress response—such as fight or flight—can save your life.
If that stress response is active when there is no immediate danger, though, it can create a dysregulated stress system. Chronic stress from prolonged or unresolved threats and trauma leads to hypervigilance, alertness, and anxiety.
Over time, a dysregulated stress system affects executive functioning, cognitive development, physical health, and more. This is particularly true if someone experiences childhood trauma and dysregulation of the stress system during key developmental years. Ongoing trauma can hinder emotional regulation, create a negative attachment style, and contribute to mental and emotional challenges that increase the risk for Addiction Disorders and other Mental Health Conditions.
Addictions Offer Maladaptive Relief
When grappling with the emotional pain, distress, and chaos that trauma can cause, individuals may turn to addictive substances or behaviors as a temporary balm. This is especially common with alcohol or drug use. The pleasurable effects of these substances can create a misguided positive reinforcement. Moreover, alcohol and other depressants can offer relief from the hypervigilance and anxiety of a dysregulated stress system.
Behavioral Addictions such as gambling or gaming can also create a sense of positive reinforcement that makes them more and more compelling as symptoms of trauma worsen. Furthermore, addictive behaviors can create an intense level of focus, which takes over the mind for a time and suppresses thoughts of stress or anxiety. As a result, addictive behavior distracts those with unprocessed trauma from the hurtful emotions, sensations, or memories they are seeking to escape.
The Cycle of Trauma and Addiction
The reprieve and distraction of Addiction Disorders are only temporary, though. Worse, these addictions create a negative cycle with trauma, exacerbating both disorders and making it harder for individuals to get the help they deserve.
Individuals with trauma turn to addictive substances or behaviors for relief, but the reprieve is temporary. Meanwhile, they build a dependency, and their trauma symptoms worsen. This dependency leads to them craving the addiction more, which means the cycle continues. Meanwhile, the effects of Addiction Disorders—such as poor job performance, relationship strain, isolation, and the development of comorbid disorders like Anxiety or Depression—continue to worsen overall well-being.
The Need for Comprehensive Treatment
When trauma and addiction meet, you cannot just treat one part. Instead, you need a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the unique relationship between your trauma and your addiction. By exploring the root of trauma, how it led to addiction, and how both affect all aspects of life, you can better understand every aspect of your mental health. This understanding, in turn, makes it easier to overcome those challenges.
Mental Health Treatment With Blair Wellness Group
At Blair Wellness Group, we work closely with clients to develop a tailored treatment plan that addresses the unique and complex challenges of trauma, addiction, and the relationship between the two. Dr. Blair has experience treating Trauma Disorders and Addiction Disorders with evidence-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and more.
By examining trauma and addiction as co-occurring Mental Health Disorders, Dr. Blair helps clients understand and overcome the cycle that these two conditions create. Heal from the effects and challenges of trauma when you turn to Blair Wellness Group for substance abuse therapy in Orange County and the surrounding areas. Make an appointment today and take this first crucial step on your journey toward better mental, emotional, and physical health.