The Impact Of Trauma On Addiction - One Trauma
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The Impact Of Trauma On Addiction

Addiction rarely occurs in a vacuum. In most cases, it exists alongside any number of other conditions. These can range from physical complaints such as chronic pain or lack of sleep to mental disorders like anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If we trace those physical and mental conditions back further, it often becomes apparent that the chain of events was set in motion by a traumatic incident or phase of life. The nature of the trauma varies broadly from one person to the next. For some people, addiction starts with a physical trauma like a traffic accident. For others, it stems from abuse or a stressful life event such as the death of a partner.

Understanding the relationship between trauma and addiction is important for several reasons, one of which is that it can inform the addiction treatment plan that is recommended. Most importantly, the recognition of the connection between the traumatic experience and addiction allows us to support the individual before the addiction happens.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma can loosely be defined as a distressing event or collection of events that leaves a lasting impact. The nature of the traumatic incident can be physical or mental, or a combination of both. Everyone experiences trauma differently. Some people internalize their negative thoughts and feelings. Outwardly, they appear to be fine, but unbeknownst to other people, they live with depression, they struggle to sleep, or they suffer from anxiety. Other people project their feelings onto other people. They may give the outward appearance of anger or aggression that mask deep insecurities or fears.

An individual’s experience with trauma is determined by many factors, including their personality traits, their environment, and whether they are using substances like alcohol, prescription medications, or other drugs. Another factor relates to the complexity of the trauma itself.

Acute Trauma

Acute trauma results from a single incident. Examples include witnessing or being involved in a serious traffic collision, surviving a natural disaster such as a hurricane, or being the victim of a random attack.

acute trauma

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma results from a series of related incidents that happen over a period of time. Examples of this include repeated exposure to domestic violence, bullying in school or workplace settings, and prolonged exposure to dangerous or stressful working conditions.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma results from exposure to multiple incidents that vary in nature. For example, an individual could lose a loved one to COVID-19, suffer a pandemic-related job loss, and be living with an abusive partner.

Symptoms of Trauma

Regardless of the source of the trauma, the individual may experience both physical and psychological symptoms.

Physical symptoms include headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, digestive complaints, a racing heart, excessive sweating, and shaking or “jitters”.

Psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, a sense of hopelessness, shame or guilt, anger or irritability, fear, and trouble concentrating.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition in which the symptoms of trauma persist for months or years after the originating event. Symptoms include flashbacks and persistent memories, and intense fear or anxiety that is triggered by sights, sounds, and smells that remind the individual of what happened. Individuals are more likely to experience PTSD if:

  • They were injured during the traumatic event
  • They had little or no support from close friends or family members after the event happened
  • They had anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems prior to the traumatic event
  • The traumatic event coincided with other stressful events, such as bereavement or financial hardship

From Traumatic Event to Addiction?

Trauma can have far-reaching impacts that vary from one person to the next. Some people may suffer from insomnia or nightmares but appear to others to be “fine”. Other people have difficulty functioning on a day-to-day basis. Trauma can have an effect on all areas of a person’s life, as can be seen in the following examples:

  • The survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault who has trouble forming new intimate relationships
  • The war veteran who cannot tolerate the sound of fireworks
  • The car accident victim who sustained a serious injury and is too afraid to get into a taxi
  • The office worker who is anxious around a new colleague who physically resembles a previous assailant
  • The person who develops a lifelong eating disorder because they were bullied for being “fat”

Seeking Comfort In Substances

When we feel bad, we instinctively try to find a way of feeling better. The treatment for trauma generally includes some form of therapy, and when it comes to seeking that kind of help, people run into all kinds of barriers, such as stigma, financial constraints, long waitlists, or lack of availability of services.

Someone in this position might have a drink or use illicit drugs without really thinking of “feeling better”. They might simply be having a drink at a restaurant, or taking a line of cocaine at a party out of curiosity. But what happens is that the substance they are using elevates their level of dopamine – the natural “feel-good” chemical that is released by the brain. This generates a sense of euphoria and confidence. If the person is experiencing physical pain, the substance might give them some relief from that.

From Ecstasy To Agony

But what goes up must come down, and dopamine is no exception to that. When dopamine is elevated naturally through healthy means like exercise, it gradually subsides to its original levels. When it is artificially elevated through substance abuse, it comes crashing down when the effects of the substance wear off. This can lead to withdrawal symptoms like a sense of despair, anger, depression, or anxiety.

Wanting to recreate the “good” feelings, the individual seeks out the substance again, and so the cycle of addiction begins. Before long, the addicted person is struggling with their relationships with loved ones, they are calling in sick to work, and they are diverting money intended for bills and groceries to their addiction. Their behaviour can swing between a rush of positive emotions and angry outbursts that frighten anyone who happens to be close by. In extreme cases, they may end up homeless, they may lose access to their children, and they may find themselves in legal trouble.

The Devastating Impacts Of Addiction

Substance use disorders can affect all areas of a person’s life, from their physical and mental health to their financial and social wellbeing. It is well-known that drug abuse can amplify PTSD symptoms, which in turn can feed the cycle of addiction.

If you are concerned that you or a family member may have developed a substance use disorder as a result of living through traumatic or stressful experiences, look out for the following telltale signs:

  • Mood symptoms such as angry outbursts, irritability, and mood swings
  • Impaired control leading to a high risk of injury to self or others
  • Destructive or disturbing thoughts including suicide, harm to others, or self-harm
  • Secrecy surrounding alcohol or opioid use, or the use of other medications
  • Weight changes that cannot be attributed to other causes
  • Sleep problems such as insomnia and nightmares
  • The use of family finances to support substance use
  • Frequent lateness or absenteeism from work or school
  • Avoiding social engagements and previously enjoyed activities in favour of drinking or drug use

How Trauma Victims Can Avoid Addiction

While it is important to get help for addiction as soon as possible, it’s even better to prevent it from happening in the first place. Going through a traumatic experience immediately is one of the most significant risk factors for developing a substance use disorder. Knowing this is helpful, as it allows you to proactively take steps to avoid addiction.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Nurture your connections with friends and family members. It has been said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety – it is connection. Loved ones are good for our mental health; they are there for us to lean on during difficult times, and we are there to help them through their bad days.
  • Find healthy ways to boost your dopamine levels. You can do this through lifestyle changes like increased exercise, spending time outdoors, listening to music, and engaging in creative pursuits like art or dance.
  • Find your passion. If you are engaged in something you care about, you are more likely to live your life with purpose. Doing something that is important to you gives you a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.
  • Seek out a professional who can help you overcome the effects of the traumatic event. There are a variety of treatment methods available, and it’s important to find one that works for you. Some people benefit from talk therapy; others do better with the Heartbeat Trauma Release method used at One Trauma.

helping victims of trauma

The Role Of One Trauma In Helping Victims Of Trauma

If you cannot bear the thought of opening up to a complete stranger about the most difficult details of your life, One Trauma might be the solution you are looking for. Using the Heartbeat Trauma Release method, we show you how to use your own life energy to heal. There is no requirement for you to talk about anything you would rather keep to yourself.

Mental Disorders Are Not A Life Sentence

Many people believe that mental disorders cannot be cured. Your own mental health professional may have shown you strategies for “coping” – or living with – mental illness following the traumatic events you have lived through.

For us, anxiety, depression, and PTSD are not forever. We understand that you can never forget the experiences you have lived through, but you can release the negative emotions and destructive thoughts that flow from it. From war veterans to those going through traumatic life events like bereavement or job loss, people recover, and we will help you make that happen.

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