Does Trauma Make Individuals More Likely to Use Addictive Substances?

Even though researchers continue to study the connection between trauma and substance use, data consistently shows that trauma can make individuals more likely to use addictive substances. Here’s why.

Approximately 70 percent of adults and 25 percent of children and adolescents in America have experienced some sort of trauma. Living through trauma can make individuals anxious, fearful, apprehensive, and overly reactive. Trauma can also change the way the brain works, making the mind hypersensitive to perceived threats. Sadly, this often leads to impulsive behaviors that can cause individuals more harm than good. One of these behaviors is substance overuse.

Seventy-five percent of men and women receiving addiction treatment have a history of abuse and trauma. Thirty-three percent of people exposed to trauma develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated 60% to 80% of veterans receiving treatment for PTSD also need treatment for a substance use disorder. Even though researchers continue to study the connection between trauma and substance use, data consistently shows that trauma can make individuals more likely to use addictive substances.

Understanding Trauma

Trauma is the brain’s emotional and psychological response to disturbing events. Unfortunately, trauma isn’t a quick response that disappears once the traumatic event ends. Trauma has lasting effects on individuals’ mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual well-being. Because of this, most people who have experienced trauma live with debilitating side effects that interfere with their daily lives.

They may have:

  • Trauma-induced phobias
  • Erratic, unexplained behaviors
  • Dramatic mood changes
  • Eating disorders
  • Low self-esteem or a lack of confidence
  • Excessive or seemingly inappropriate displays of emotion
  • Constant or ongoing fear, nervousness, or anxiety
  • Prolonged agitation and irritability
  • Flashbacks or nightmares reliving the event
  • Difficulty developing or maintaining romantic, social, or professional relationships
  • Some individuals intentionally avoid people, places, and situations that remind them of the trauma they experienced. Others try to regain control of their lives by being impulsive, audacious, and hasty. Regardless of their different experiences, individuals who have experienced trauma have all lived through some level of physical or emotional pain.

Types of Trauma

There are many different types of trauma. Some of the most common forms of trauma include:

  • Rape
  • Parental neglect
  • Physical assault
  • Severe injuries
  • Witnessing violence
  • Sexual assault and abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Emotional or verbal abuse
  • Bullying or ongoing harassment
  • Accidents like severe car crashes or fires
  • Trying to escape or cope with these kinds of experiences can cause people to develop unhealthy, harmful habits.

The Connection Between Trauma and Substance Use

A landmark study about adverse childhood experiences found that children who experience 4 or more traumatic events are 5 times more likely to abuse alcohol. The study also revealed that these same children are 46 times more likely to inject drugs than children who haven’t experienced such severe trauma. Individuals who experience trauma as adults are also more likely to use addictive substances. Here’s why.

Trauma Makes The Brain Hypersensitive and Overly Reactive

The human brain is highly adaptive. Thanks to a trait called plasticity, the brain can respond to and adapt to human experiences. Everything individuals do and experience — good or bad — causes neurons in the brain to grow, change, or break. Because of plasticity, childhood experiences can follow people into adolescence and adulthood. In fact, these experiences shape how you think, behave, and react to people, situations, and opportunities.

When individuals experience trauma, abnormalities happen in the brain. These changes often affect cognitive thinking and impulse control.

Trauma mainly affects the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala regulates the flight or fight response while the hippocampus consolidates and stores memories triggered by emotions. The prefrontal cortex helps individuals regulate emotions and control impulses. Trauma sends the amygdala into overdrive which suppresses the prefrontal cortex. Because of this, individuals are less capable of controlling their fear and more reactive.

Trauma can also reduce activity in the hippocampus, which helps individuals distinguish between the past and the present. This makes individuals less likely to tell the difference between the actual trauma and traumatic memory. As a result, the brain remains hypervigilant and emotionally reactive with little to no impulse control.

Trauma May Make Individuals Seek Perpetual Comfort

Trauma dramatically increases cortisol levels. Extremely high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones impede normal brain development. Instead of being able to find comfort and pleasure, people who have experienced trauma have an intense yearning for relief, comfort, and fulfillment. The brain, looking to satisfy this need for comfort, seeks pleasure.

As a result, many people turn to addictive substances like alcohol or drugs. For example, stimulant drugs such as cocaine, crystal meth, and heroin, increase the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, also known as the “feel-good” chemical, offers a temporary sense of pleasure, relief, and release. Unfortunately, this comfort is short-lived, which often compels individuals to use these substances repeatedly. Because of this, individuals use drugs and alcohol as substitutes for the comfort and safety they should have experienced throughout their life.

Trauma Can Lead to Mental Health Disorders Individuals May Try to Self-Medicate

Untreated trauma can easily develop into mental health conditions. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health disorder that occurs when people have difficulty recovering from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Experiencing trauma can also make people depressed or overly anxious.

Sadly, mental health conditions can make individuals more likely to use addictive substances. Constantly feeling down, struggling with panic attacks, and dealing with paranoia and social anxiety can cause individuals to try to self-medicate their symptoms.

Individuals try to self-medicate their problems when they indulge in behaviors that temporarily make them feel better when they’re experiencing a challenging situation. Many people who have experienced trauma use drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication. Some individuals try to numb uncomfortable feelings and memories.

Others try to find temporary relief or fill an emotional void. Some just want to feel some sort of pleasure after so much pain. Regardless of the reason, self-medication can:

  • Make symptoms worse
  • Trigger new mental or physical health problems
  • Prevent individuals from getting the help they need

Luckily, professional treatment programs like ours can help individuals heal from trauma, overcome substance abuse, and manage any co-occurring mental health challenges they may be facing.

Brain-Focused Care For An Optimal, Thriving Life

Here at StoneRidge, we know how painful traumatic experiences can be. We also know that the right treatment can help the brain function properly, allowing you to overcome a painful past and harmful decisions. Our brain-focused mental health and addiction treatment programs can help you live a thriving life. Let us help you get there. Contact us today to learn more.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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