a woman struggles with past trauma that effects her substance abuse

Trauma and Substance Abuse

Trauma and substance abuse are intricately connected. Many people with substance use disorders have trauma in their past or are dealing with trauma in their present lives. For them, a trauma therapy program is a crucial aspect of recovery from substance abuse. A skilled trauma therapist works with clients to unpack the root causes behind addictions and help them learn to handle their trauma in healthy ways. Call Right Step Hill Country at 1.844.675.1628 to learn more.

What Is Trauma? 

Events that cause physical or emotional harm, and have a lasting impact on an individual’s well-being, are considered traumatic events. Often, people who have endured trauma think no one else can relate to what they’ve been through. This feeling of loneliness often contributes to substance addictions. 

While many kinds of incidents, situations, and experiences can be traumatic, some of the most common causes of lasting trauma are: 

  • Physical or sexual assault 
  • Childhood neglect or abuse 
  • Domestic violence 
  • Emotional or verbal abuse 
  • Physical injury 
  • Accidents 
  • Serious illness 
  • Harassment or bullying 

Even if the traumatic situation happened a long time ago, its trauma can affect people many years later. 

How Trauma Impacts People 

Especially if you experience trauma during childhood, trauma can change the way your brain works. You may become accustomed to being stressed or being on high alert. When you’re in danger, your brain releases extra levels of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, causing a “fight or flight” response. Over time, your brain may get so used to reacting this way that you have the same fear response to situations that are not dangerous. Certain events, places, people, and even thoughts may become “triggers” that remind you of physical and emotional harm.  

Trauma survivors can have a wide range of symptoms, like: 

  • Difficulty controlling their emotions or mood swings 
  • Trouble relating to other people and maintaining relationships
  • Constant anxiety or nervousness 
  • Irritability and agitation 
  • Experiencing flashbacks or intrusive memories of the traumatic situation
  • Hypersensitivity to sudden movements or loud noises 
  • Withdrawal from social situations
  • Depression 
  • Insomnia 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Self-harm 

People who are deeply affected by trauma can get stuck in a mental “loop” where the traumatic experience replays itself over and over. They may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition can affect both veterans who have returned from combat and people who are overcoming other sources of trauma. 

How Trauma and Substance Abuse Are Connected

Someone who has survived trauma may feel that they are surrounded by triggers. To escape from the discomfort and fear these triggers cause, they may turn to drugs and alcohol to temporarily alter their mood or to hide their true feelings. Substance use becomes a coping mechanism. Trauma survivors are at increased risk for developing substance use disorders as a result. 

People who experience life-altering trauma during childhood are especially vulnerable to developing addictions later in life. The brain is still forming in childhood, and the brains of children who live through trauma may produce excessive amounts of stress hormones constantly, affecting their mental functioning as adults. 

Trauma and addiction tend to go together because addictive substances provide a short-term solution to traumatic symptoms. A trauma survivor who is having intense emotions may find that alcohol and drugs numb these emotions, at least for a while. However, they risk relying on substances to manage their stress. After a while, they may develop a tolerance to their substance of choice, requiring higher doses to achieve the same numbing effect. 

Often, people with substance use disorders don’t even realize the link between their trauma and substance abuse. This is where a trauma therapy program can be especially helpful. By addressing their trauma, survivors are able to understand the reasons behind their addictions and begin to feel empowered to quit for good. 

Trauma and Addiction Treatment 

For treatment to be as effective as possible, trauma and substance abuse should be treated together. This method is known as trauma-informed care. Counselors and therapists are trained to go beyond the individual’s substance use patterns and help them work through their trauma history. Clients may realize that trauma has impacted them in ways they weren’t aware of. A program gives them a safe, trustworthy environment to deal with difficult emotions and find support. 

A strong trauma-informed care program includes integrated forms of physical and emotional health care, such as: 

  • Peer support groups 
  • Individual and group talk therapy 
  • Emotional regulation skills training
  • Identifying and practicing healthy coping mechanisms 
  • Interpersonal skills training 
  • Counseling for grief and loss 
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Holistic treatments, like yoga or art therapy 

Treatment often involves identifying unhealthy behavior and thought patterns—beyond substance abuse—and replacing them with healthy, constructive thoughts and behaviors. Two evidence-based methods that are commonly used are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on transforming harmful thought patterns, and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which teaches skills like emotional regulation and mindfulness. 

Trauma-Informed Care at The Right Step Hill Country 

Our Texas facility provides integrated, informed, and compassionate care for trauma and addiction. Clients participate in individual therapy with a counselor who gets to know them and their unique needs. Group therapy helps clients find support from other people who may be able to understand what they’re going through. With the support network The Right Step Hill Country offers, recovery is possible, even if it seems impossible right now. 

Get started on your recovery journey, or refer someone you love, by calling 1.844.675.1628 for more details. You can also fill out our online contact form and let us get back to you.

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