The Connection Between Trauma and Addictions

Millions of Americans struggle with addiction every year, with an estimated 22.9 million people over age 12 having a substance use disorder according to SAMHSA’s 2018 report.

Even more common, however, is the experience of trauma – a 2015 study conducted by the World Mental Health Consortium found that in the 82.7% of the U.S. general population (approximately 267 million Americans) had experienced at least one traumatic event in their life.

There has been a longstanding connection between the experience of trauma and addictions, with various research showing that the experience of trauma places an individual at a higher risk of increased substance use.

An Expanded Understanding of Trauma

In the past, trauma has been thought of as any single event in which a person is exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or violence. Due to the contributions of neuroscience research over the past several decades, additional perspectives on trauma have emerged, adding to our understanding of trauma to be any event that is prolonged, unpredictable, and overwhelms an individual physiologically, emotionally, and psychologically.

When many people hear the word “trauma,” they automatically think of PTSD, a psychological condition that some people can develop after the experience of one or multiple traumatic events. However, the diagnosable condition of PTSD is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the ways that trauma can affect individuals, particularly trauma experienced in people’s childhoods.

A seminal and ongoing study of aversive childhood experiences (ACEs), which are traumatic or stressful events experienced in childhood, found that ACEs are remarkably common and that the more ACEs a person experiences in their childhood, the greater their risk for a variety of health, social, and behavioral problems throughout their life, including substance use. Several studies have found that the number of ACEs a person has experienced is correlated with earlier initiation of alcohol use, earlier initiation of illicit drug use and self-reported addiction, and higher risk for mental and substance use disorders as an older adult.

But what does this mean for individuals who may be seeking help for a substance use disorder or addiction?

Recovery & Healing

Evidence supports a connection between trauma and people using substances or other harmful behaviors as an attempt to cope with emotions and/or symptoms associated with past trauma or stressful experiences. As a result, it is essential that treatment of addictions be trauma-informed, meaning clinicians are educated in and sensitive to the many ways that a person’s past experiences are affecting them.

A trauma-informed clinician can provide education and the foundational skills to begin addressing the past events while also treating how it affects them and their addiction in the present. They may also provide a referral to longer-term trauma-focused therapy to aid in processing and integration of past trauma in some cases. If you are struggling with addiction and feel you have experienced trauma in the past, know that people can and do recover from both, and you do not have to do it alone.

-Stephen Smith

Summit Hill Wellness is here to help.

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