The connection between trauma and addiction isn’t coincidental. Statistics revealed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, up to 76% of individuals who experience a trauma in their life will turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. In addition, up to 59% of individuals diagnosed with PTSD also develop an unhealthy relationship between drugs, alcohol, or both.
So what is it about these difficult events that make people walk down a self-destructive path? Why, after suffering an overwhelming amount of pain, would they choose a coping mechanism that only makes things worse?
Read on to learn more about the connection between trauma and addiction, including the physical and emotional factors that make these individuals more vulnerable to developing these painful habits.
Exploring the Neurological Effects of Trauma
Many traumas that lead to addiction start during a person’s childhood. This is such an influential phase of human development. What we experience during our early years directly impacts the way our brain develops.
However, to understand this you must first understand neuroplasticity, which is sometimes referred to as brain plasticity. These terms refer to the complex process in which the brain organizes and reorganizes neural pathways based on new experiences.
Every experience leaves an impression. As a child, the brain is highly impressionable because it is undergoing the phases of developmental plasticity and plasticity of learning and memory.
Consider this: the brain develops more between the day a child is born to age 5 than any other period in his or her lifetime. In fact, the human brain reaches 90% of its growth during that period. This includes the development of problem-solving, self-regulation, motivation, and communication skills.
But what if, during these formative years, a child is influenced by negative experiences? Studies show that negative childhood experiences such as maltreatment can cause impairments in a person’s behavioral, cognitive, and social capabilities.
These impairments carry into adulthood, which often leads to an inability to cope with stressful situations.
Keep in mind that trauma isn’t limited to our first few years on earth, either. While our influences up to the age of 5 play a significant role in our overall brain development, abuse and mistreatment can heavily impact a person of any age.
When extremely high levels of stress are endured frequently, it interrupts or rewires the brain’s development. This could lead to a constant state of hypervigilance, as well as other involuntary states.
Simply put, imagine being on edge all of the time. Everything from being jumpy to panicked to paranoid simply because your brain was wired from past experiences to be fearful or suspicious of certain activity.
While your brain does this as an instinctual ability to adapt and survive, for victims of trauma it can turn into a double-edged sword. What was meant to protect us instead becomes a constant state of stress.
In essence, they become their own enemy, seeing fears, doubts, and threats where there aren’t any. When one lives like this day-to-day, it’s understandable to seek some form of escape.
Understanding the Emotional Impact of Traumatic Events
Beyond the physical, there are also many emotional triggers which can lead to a destructive relationship with drugs and alcohol. This includes impulse control disorders and behavioral addictions on top of substance abuse.
Because children experience emotional development that starts in infancy and continues into adulthood, traumatic events can interfere with the ability to recognize and process emotions in a healthy manner.
The consequence of this leads to poor choices, poor behavior, and an inability to cope with normal life situations or stresses.
Causes of poor emotional development include:
- Violence within the home
- Verbal abuse
- Sexual abuse
- And more
This is why strong parenting and positive influence are such important factors in human development.
The emotional stunting that occurs isn’t just mental, it’s physical. The part of the brain that controls emotions is actually smaller in children who experienced maltreatment during their formative years by 6.5%.
The increase in stress leads to fewer neurons in the hippocampal area. It also makes a person more vulnerable to multiple episodes of depression in adulthood.
How to Face and Overcome Trauma and Addiction
In both physical and emotional cases of trauma, the problem comes down to an inability to cope. From the general spectrum of emotions to uncontrollable stress, individuals affected by trauma seek some kind of escape.
Drugs and alcohol are seemingly quick fixes. They create moments of happiness and euphoria. However, they are followed often by guilt, regret, or pain. It becomes a cycle as these people seek to escape the mounting discomfort of their own emotions.
Thus begins the cycle of addiction.
When we look at it this way, it’s not only simple but it makes sense. Many people who suffer trauma in their lifetime have no idea why they feel the way they feel. Even if they know their behavior is different from normal, they don’t always know why.
Treatment for addiction is widely available, but that doesn’t make choosing it any easier. The addict has to both acknowledge the problem and seek help, which is often a long and arduous road.
The easiest route is the self-destructive path of addiction. It takes a true and hearty desire to get better in order to face and overcome the challenges of getting better.
The good news, though, is that healing and hope are both possible. While the road is much longer, it is far more fulfilling.
The Road to Recovery
The first step to trauma and addiction recovery is acknowledging the problem. Sometimes this requires intervention on behalf of friends and loved ones. But this isn’t always the case.
Some individuals who suffer traumatic experiences during childhood or in their youth become aware of its impact on their own. They notice their differences. Either through outside influence or their own intuition and research, they identify that their experiences left an impact that needs to be addressed.
However, the next step takes a healthy dose of courage. It’s the process of seeking and accepting help. In many cases, this requires a lot of outside support from family, friends, loved ones, and other individuals who can assist with encouragement and accountability.
Depending upon your level of addiction, this may require a stay within a rehabilitation facility, sessions with a licensed psychiatrist or counselor, accountability through support groups, friends, and family, or all of the above.
For simplicity’s sake, we are going to break this road down into 3 additional steps.
Find the Right Treatment Option for Your Needs
Deciding on the right treatment option isn’t always a black and white path. If you aren’t sure where to turn, its best to start with local resources or hotlines. While treatment may seem costly upfront, there are often various grants and loans offered to help pay your way through them.
If you feel you need immediate intervention, pick up the phone and call 911 or a suicide hotline. You can also access instant messaging applications such as IM Alive if you feel more comfortable with a chat interface than you do a direct call.
Be honest about your situation. The more clear and honest you are, the more effectively you can be linked to the help you need.
Commit to Your Path Toward a Better Life
The next steps involve commitment and follow-through. While accepting help is a milestone within itself, it means nothing if you cannot follow-through from beginning to end.
We are detailing five steps to recovery, but this particular step often presents itself through a twelve step program. It’s a long and ongoing process. One that most people will spend the rest of their lives walking.
Yet, as intimidating as that may seem, it is also worthwhile. The road to recovery has many up and downs, but with it comes an experience and a connection with life. You are no longer drowning out your existence under addiction.
Instead, you are embracing life throughout its highs and lows. When you consider that, you realize the road is worthwhile.
Celebrate Your Triumphs as They Come
Finally, don’t forget to celebrate the moments of triumph. The road to recovery may be long, but you don’t have to view it as something that is only worth celebrating when you reach the end.
Like life, it’s a long-term journey. The moments in between are the ones you should live within. Focus on the here and now. Enjoy life. Encourage and celebrate the little moments as well as the milestones.
You’ll find it isn’t so much about the end result, rather how you spend the time in between. Embrace today and live it to its fullest. Addiction or no addiction, you are human, and you deserve to experience the joy life has to offer.
Gain More Insight into the Topic of Addiction
The relationship between trauma and addiction is only one small facet of this tragic yet interesting topic. If you want to delve deeper into the topic of addiction and discover more about what causes people to make the decisions that lead to such a state, explore our articles on the subject.
However, if you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, we encourage you to seek help from a rehabilitation center or mental health professional. If you feel you or someone you love is in danger of suicide, call 911 immediately.