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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Uncovering the Root of Substance Use: The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

Studies of people living with addiction have time and time again shown the high percentage of trauma that exists among this population. A groundbreaking longitudinal study, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), showcases evidence and information regarding the relationship between trauma and substance use. 

The original ACES study consisted of sending participants a 10 item questionnaire evaluating certain traumatic and detrimental situations they may have experienced as a child. Questions assess the prevalence of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver substance use, and other adverse experiences. 

This news source dedicated solely to reporting on the research and effects of ACES informs that compared with those who have an ACES score of 0, people with higher scores are more likely to use substances - with each additional ACE, the likelihood increases two to four times. Those who have an ACE score of 5 or higher are seven to 10 times more likely to live with an addiction. 
Additionally, of those in substance use treatment, 75% report a history of trauma

The research is clear. There is a definite connection between trauma and addiction. Let’s explore this deeper and discuss how trauma-informed treatment is essential in providing clients with comprehensive and long-lasting recovery.  

For more information on the ACES study and how childhood trauma has a significant physiological impact on development, check out this TED talk from Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. 

How the body reacts to trauma 

Not only does trauma affect the emotional and mental health of a person, but it also influences brain functioning as well. Let’s explore this in more depth:
Many of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response our bodies activate when we perceive a threat. This is the body’s sympathetic nervous system at work. When a situation appears to be dangerous, our bodies prepare to either fight against or flee from the predator as a form of protection. This is why our heart pounds, our breathing rate changes, and our pupils dilate when we are in a stressful situation. In the face of physical threats, this can be an incredibly useful tool of protection to spring us into action. However, as in the case of anxiety and trauma, our brain has difficulty discriminating between perceived and actual threats.

In addition, if a person is exposed to frequent stressors and threats, such as traumatic experiences, the brain is constantly being flooded with hormones associated with the fight or flight response. This eventually alters the chemical sensitivity of brain functioning, and even if the person is no longer experiencing the trauma, the brain may perceive low-level stressors (i.e. an upcoming final exam) as an intense threat and react accordingly. 

Based on these findings, it is apparent that trauma affects someone’s ability to cope in a beneficial and healthy way. It may seem nearly impossible to feel any kind of emotional control or interpersonal fulfillment when coping skills are limited and physiologically impacted. In many instances, individuals are desperate to alleviate the pain and may turn to using substances as a way to avoid the intensity of these emotions and cope. 

Addiction as a way to cope with trauma

As a way to manage the effects of trauma, some may seek comfort and fulfillment via self-medicating, as is explained in the following excerpt from this article

“Self-medication is any activity or behavior the trauma survivor may use in an attempt to alleviate pain. A trauma survivor lives in a never-ending state of pain, continually re-experiencing a horrifying event or situation, frightened that it will occur again, and carrying a sense of the world as a terrifying place over which she has no control. Relief may come from a drug, from alcohol, or from “comforting” behaviors such as excessive eating, shopping, gambling, or sex.” 

Self-medication is often used by trauma survivors as a way to cope with and numb their painful reality. This form of temporary relief can lead to dependency or addiction. However, substance use doesn’t actually take away the pain and trauma - it simply reduces awareness of it. In addition to solely being a “mask” instead of a solution, substance use limits an individual’s ability to utilize healthy coping skills, and can even lead to re-traumatization. 

Trauma-informed recovery at The Haven

Since there is such a strong connection between trauma and addiction, it is imperative to have a comprehensive treatment process that attends to substance use recovery while also addressing trauma and its impact. It’s important that the healing journey includes uncovering the root of the substance use, which research shows, is oftentimes a response to trauma. Including this trauma-informed approach in treatment allows for healing from the pain that led to substance use in the first place. 

The Haven at Pismo offers individualized care, carefully considering each person’s unique lived experiences and past. We are here to help you renew to your best today.