The link between trauma and substance abuse is well-documented, yet both illnesses are often treated separately. It is essential to treat both at the same time because many of the symptoms are similar between the two disorders. Evidence has shown that receiving treatment for both conditions at the same time can have the most significant impact on building a sober life.

What is trauma?

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” An individual will often experience emotions such as shock and denial immediately after the event. Longer-term effects include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. It can be challenging to move on in life after experiencing trauma without help.

Trauma usually results from deliberate behaviors or actions, such as rape or murder. Traumatic events can range from a single catastrophic incident, like a car accident, to ongoing situations, such as domestic abuse. When looking at trauma, the type of experience is not as important as how the person responds to it. According to Dr. Karen Khalegh from Psychology Today, a person’s ability to cope with stressful events depends on three factors: the person’s history, the coping skills learned as a child, and emotional stability at the time of the event.

What are the symptoms of trauma?

There is no set period for when trauma symptoms will appear because it is unique to each experience. The American Psychological Association indicates that the common symptoms of trauma include:

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Is there treatment for trauma and substance abuse?

Because trauma and substance abuse are co-occurring disorders, they both must be treated for the best chance of long-term recovery. It is about more than just sobriety when it comes to treating a trauma survivor with a substance use disorder. By treating the underlying cause of the trauma, a person is more likely to stay sober.

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  • Avoidance of intrusive memories, including denial, emotional numbing, or dissociation from reality
  • Heightened arousal and response
  • Feelings of extreme anxiety
  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling disconnected or numb
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Being startled easily
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Edginess and agitation
  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension

How does trauma relate to addiction?

Many survivors will try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to avoid the feelings associated with the trauma. Self-medication is the most common explanation of trauma as a risk factor for substance abuse.

Trauma survivors may also turn to unhealthy behaviors such as using drugs and alcohol, or even binge eating, excessive shopping, or sex in a search for comfort. In Adolescents often try to use drugs and alcohol to numb themselves from the experience of a traumatic event. Once one of these behaviors provides comfort, it is very easy for an individual to slip into addiction.

On the other hand, substance abuse is a risk factor for trauma. A study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows a direct link between alcohol use and engagement in risky behaviors in which adolescents may get hurt, such as hitchhiking, walking in unsafe neighborhoods, and driving after using alcohol or drugs. It is not a surprise that adolescents with substance abuse disorders are also significantly more likely than their abusing peers to experience traumas resulting from risky behaviors, including harm to themselves or witnessing harm to others.

The relationship between trauma and substance abuse is a complicated two-way street.