Addiction is a complex process with numerous variables at play, but trauma may be one of the most important of those variables. By understanding the connection between trauma and addiction, problems can be better treated.
Unfortunately, the mental health field didn’t adequately recognize trauma’s impact on mental health until the last century. The problem drew more attention once mental health professionals saw more and more “shell shocked” soldiers after World Wars I and II.
Since then, we’ve come to understand that trauma isn’t limited to soldiers. Particularly in the last 30 years, we’ve learned that children of abuse or neglect, those who experience domestic violence, rape, and even random events such as car accidents can spark a similar patterns of mental health symptoms in people of all ages and backgrounds.
General Effects of Trauma
With better research, we’ve learned more about how trauma affects mental health functioning. Trauma can cause a variety of problems, including:
- Neurological changes: Studies have found trauma has physical effects on the brain, at the microscopic level. For example, children who suffer neglect in their first 2-3 years — long before they have clear memories of such trauma — are more likely to have trouble regulating emotions and behavior.
- Physical brain damage: We know direct brain injury sustained through violence or an accident is a physical problem, but such injuries also affect mental health. Brain injuries can result in confusion, impulsivity, depression, aggression, and other symptoms that affect all areas of a person’s life.
- Poor interpersonal functioning: When we’ve experienced a trauma, particularly if it was an attack by another person, our ability to relate to others changes. We can become more guarded or fearful. For some people, relationship boundaries blur, resulting in impulsive or unhealthy behaviors when choosing friends or partners.
- Poor emotional regulation: Trauma makes it hard to process emotions effectively. Situations that don’t bother other people very much might cause severe anxiety, sadness, or anger in individuals with a trauma history. On the other hand, trauma may also cause emotional numbing, leading to more sensation-seeking behaviors.
- Low self-worth: Depending on the nature of the trauma, sufferers can be left with long-term emotional scars that make them doubt their value in the world. Chronic self-doubt makes it hard to believe you deserve good things in life.
How Addiction Stems From Trauma
There’s a common notion that addiction — whether it’s to alcohol, drugs, food, or even behaviors such as exercise or sex — is simply a way to “self-medicate” when people feel bad. Although there is a grain of truth in that, the impact of trauma can play directly into developing addiction.
Brain changes, whether from direct injury or from patterns of abuse or neglect, affect decision making and impulse control. People may need greater levels of stimulation in order to “feel” as strongly as other people do, because trauma can numb emotions. On the other hand, trauma sufferers may also need a way to blunt their emotions or take the edge off when their feelings are stronger than is typical for a given situation.
In addition, people who know they don’t cope with feelings well may use addictive behaviors to prevent behaviors from getting worse. For example, if someone has a tendency to fly off the handle when frustrated, they might realize life is worse for them when they don’t cope well. They may use substances to keep these feelings at bay. Addictive behaviors become a misguided type of preventive self-care, in which the person tries to manage a problem behavior proactively.
Finally, the type of trauma — not just a person’s feelings about the trauma — also affects addiction. Research suggests that with some types of trauma, such as that which occurs in childhood, addiction risk is higher, no matter what the person thinks about the trauma they experienced.
Such a finding suggests there’s more at play in addiction than just personal attitudes and choices. In other words, a person who’s experienced trauma can’t always just look on the bright side and expect to avoid the risk of addiction. If there’s a trauma history, there’s an addition risk.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and general anxiety. It can also help you develop stronger coping skills, greater sense of self-worth, and better relationship skills.
Improvements in these areas reduce risk for addictive behaviors if they haven’t begun yet. If there is addiction already present, therapy can address, not only the addiction, but these underlying risk factors. Treating addiction alone without addressing the trauma may not be enough to prevent relapse.
The connection between trauma and addiction is real but not fully understood. The bottom line is, if you have problems with substance abuse or other addictive behaviors, you may need to deal with underlying trauma, not just the addiction alone. If you have a trauma history, be aware of your risk for addictive behaviors of all kinds, and don’t hesitate to get help if you need it.