It may come as little surprise that trauma is a common denominator in a majority of addiction cases. But trauma doesn’t mean the same thing to each person. What one considers to be a traumatic event can easily be brushed off and forgotten by the next person.
There are some interesting findings and statistics when you start piecing trauma together with drug and alcohol addictions. This clear-cut connection screams for need to address and reprocess trauma during a formal addiction treatment program. At Intervention Helpline, we even address trauma during the intervention process, and we try to help get individuals into a treatment program that knows how to handle trauma.
Types of Trauma
Trauma exists in the mind of the individual, and can alter the way they think, speak and act as time goes on. As we alluded to, you can be in the same place and go through the same experience as another person, but what feels traumatic to you may not be traumatic or memorable to them. People’s brains work differently, and there are a number of other factors to take into account.
Trauma comes in myriad forms, but the most common events that people tend to perceive as traumatic include:
- Physical or emotional abuse (particularly at the hands of a parent or spouse)
- Death of a family member or close friend
- Prolonged isolation
- Being diagnosed with a severe or chronic condition
- Estranged or unhealthy relationships
- Being victim of a crime, such as theft or burglary
- Sexual assault or harassment
- Natural disaster
- Terrorist attack
- Sports injury
- Auto collision, particularly if an injury resulted
- Any other major or traumatic injury
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 60 percent of men will go through at least one traumatic experience in their lives. This is comp to roughly 50 percent of women. Surprisingly, though, the lifetime prevalence rate of post-traumatic stress disorder is much higher in women (9.7 percent) than in men (3.6 percent).
Trauma Leading to Substance Abuse
Even though trauma has a pretty strong correlation with drug and alcohol abuse, it’s not always evident right away. Trauma is something that tends to “eat away” at a person the longer it goes untreated. The more the person dwells on the traumatic experience(s), the more drastic his or her thoughts and responses become.
According to the National Center for PTSD, a whopping three-fourths of people who receive substance abuse treatment have a history of exposure to trauma. People dealing with trauma tend to turn to drugs or alcohol for one or both of the following reasons:
- To numb the mental anguish stemming from trauma
- To repress memories of traumatic events
Substance use may serve as a temporary fix, but it is in no way a healthy long-term solution to dealing with trauma. Just as trauma rewires a person’s thinking patterns and behavior (drug and alcohol abuse is a manifestation of this), so too can prolonged substance use. Before long, you seemingly have a different person than the one before the traumatic event.
Substance Abuse as a Precursor to Trauma
No matter which way you approach it, substance abuse almost always seems to have a close relationship with trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network found that substance abuse increased the likelihood of being exposed to trauma. In fact, substance abuse preceded trauma up to 66 percent of the time.
Why? How? Abusing drugs or alcohol tends to lead to risky or erratic behavior. The user could end up injuring himself/herself or another person through one of the following means:
- Placing oneself in harm’s way
- Risk-taking behavior
- Driving under the influence
- Unsafe sexual behavior
Substance Abuse Stemming from Childhood Trauma
As you’ve probably seen in several movies and real-life scenarios, experiencing trauma in childhood can forever alter the person mentally and socially. Once these children reach adulthood, they are at much greater risk of substance abuse. This is especially true in people who never received treatment or counseling after the childhood trauma.
According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire and follow-up studies, children who grew up amid frequent occurrences of physical and verbal abuse were 5 times more likely to be an alcoholic, and 46 times more likely to inject drugs. (Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are behind the questionnaire.)
When these children grow up, substance use becomes a tempting and quick means to repress memories and allay their mental and emotional suffering, no matter how successful they become in life.
Revealing Findings from Atlanta Study on Trauma
A 2010 study in Atlanta, GA was highly influential in how we look at trauma and substance use today. In the study, published in Depression and Anxiety peer-reviewed journal, researchers observed 587 patients of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.
Researchers called the participants a “highly traumatized population,” and found high rates of lifetime dependence on various substances. The lifetime rates among this group were:
- 44.8 percent dependence on marijuana
- 39.0 percent dependence on alcohol
- 34.1 percent dependence on cocaine
- 6.2 percent dependence on heroin/opiates
The high rate of cocaine abuse among this group was particularly surprising. Considering that less than 1 percent of American adults use cocaine within a given month, to see its lifetime dependence rate so close to that of alcohol among these participants is shocking.
“The level of substance use, particularly cocaine, strongly correlated with levels of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as current PTSD symptoms,” the study concluded.
Considering Trauma in Addiction Interventions
At Intervention Helpline, we take into account trauma and mental issues as we plan an intervention and help build a robust treatment plan for the individual. Is trauma a mental health disorder? No, general trauma is not classified as a specific mental health disorder (although PTSD is). But, it certainly is a mental health issue, one that can lead to a diagnosable disorder (such as depression).
In some cases, the interviews we do are more for the mental health issues in the individual rather than his or her use of drugs or alcohol. And when it comes time to help the family and the individual look for treatment, our main goal is finding a dual diagnosis program. Dual diagnosis means somebody who has both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder.
Finding a Trauma-Informed Dual Diagnosis Treatment Program
One of the services we offer at Intervention Helpline beyond the intervention is help in placing your loved one in a treatment program best suited to his or her needs. And if your loved one has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, or appears to suffer from one, in addition to his or her substance use, then we need to look for dual diagnosis treatment.
In this search, we will look for treatment centers that have shown a record of treating trauma alongside the addiction symptoms. Some will claim to offer a “trauma-informed approach” to care. These facilities will quickly move to the top of our list.
What’s the best therapy technique for overcoming trauma? Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
EMDR allows the patient to bring painful, traumatic memories to the forefront, but begin to look at them in a different light. This therapy helps patients view those memories more objectively and develop helpful, new takeaways from the events in question.
Dual diagnosis programs offering EMDR are going to be among the top choices for your loved one who’s battling trauma and addiction. In many cases, people who go through rehab get a chance to talk through their past trauma for the very first time. The counseling helps them confront the trauma and not let it weigh over their heads going forward. This lowers the risk of relapse.
Contact our interventionists today if you have a loved one who has been through traumatic life experiences and is currently struggling with alcohol or drug abuse.