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The Role of Trauma in the Development of Addiction

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Addiction is a complex disease that can happen to anyone. While there are many misconceptions about addiction still prevalent, the truth is that addiction is not simply the result of any kind of moral failing or shortcoming. Rather, there is a myriad of things that can impact the development of addiction, from environmental factors and mental health disorders to genetics. 

Although, trauma is a particularly strong influence when it comes to the use of addictive substances. Trauma can cause an individual to seek emotional respite from its effects. Addictive substances are a fast-acting, dangerous, attempt to self-medicate in the face of the intense effects of trauma. 

The Many Forms of Trauma

There can be many different thoughts that come to mind when one hears the word “trauma.” There are actually a wide variety of difficult and life-changing experiences that can all be classified as traumatic. From childhood traumas and natural disasters to the deterioration of close relationships, trauma takes many forms. These different forms are then classified into two different categories: “Trauma,” spelled with a capital “T,” and “trauma,” with a lowercase “t”.

Capital “T” Trauma

“Trauma” encapsulates the experiences that most commonly spring to mind when hearing the word. This category of trauma typically involves massive life events where an individual may feel helpless or powerless in the face of their experiences. 

Armed conflicts, especially in the case of first responders or members of the armed forces, physical or sexual assault, vehicular accidents, and natural disasters are all classified under this intense category of trauma. Threats of serious injury, death, or assault can also be classified under this category, fundamentally changing one’s attitudes and worldview even if an individual is never physically harmed as a result. The emotional and mental damage can still be incredibly severe. 

The loss of a parent or loved one can also be incredibly traumatic. Whether one feels powerless to protect or help a loved one, or one feels as if they “could have” changed the outcome, both are incredibly profound feelings that are major traumatic experiences. Often these experiences are further exacerbated by feelings of guilt or feeling unfairly judged against unrealistic expectations of how they should have handled the situation. These experiences can stay with an individual throughout their life, fundamentally changing their worldview from the second they occur. They can commonly manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.)

Lowercase “t” trauma

Lowercase “t” traumas indicate other life experiences that may not be as severe on the surface, but still carry a degree of emotional damage. Losing a pet, having a birthday or other holiday forgotten or skipped, or losing a friendship by moving away or growing apart can all greatly impact an individual. These stresses can linger in a person’s mind, and even compound over time, creating traumatic feelings and anxieties of their own. 

Regardless of how trauma manifests in an individual, it can inform various coping strategies. For some, this can mean turning to the use of addictive substances to placate feelings of stress, depression, anxiety, or any other lingering traumatic effects. This then creates even more destructive and complex symptoms. 

How Trauma Relates to Addiction

Traumatic experiences can cause a fundamental shift in a person’s worldview, framing their perspective as filled with danger, stress, or loss. Feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation are all common, and an individual may emotionally and physically distance themselves from the world around them in an attempt to protect themselves from further traumas. These intense effects are incredibly difficult to cope with, and an individual may still look for anything to help placate these negative feelings. 

Addictive substances are a fast-acting way to push aside these feelings. An individual may turn to their use in order to force down their own stressed or anxious minds, giving oneself a “break” from their threatening perspective. As one uses these substances to cope with trauma, one may become reliant on them to quell these feelings while creating an unhealthy and destructive relationship with drugs or alcohol. 

The Dangers of Addictive Substances

While addictive substances may purport to provide a “break” from traumatic feelings, they actually do much more harm than good. As an individual attempts to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, they may begin to create a positive relationship with the substances, facilitating their use to cope with all kinds of difficulty or stress. This frequent use and reliance can quickly develop to a point where an individual feels as if they cannot function without their use. 

While the desire to placate these feelings is understandable, addictive substances do nothing to actually process one’s traumatic experiences. Rather, they only act to mask a still difficult and complex emotional state. 

Those suffering from traumatic experiences do not turn to drugs or alcohol out of any kind of moral failing. Rather, trauma can cause an individual to seek any kind of mental respite from traumatic thoughts and memories. Drugs and alcohol can masquerade as a solution to quell these stresses in the present, despite future consequences. Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol can create a difficult situation of dual diagnosis

There is nothing easy about overcoming trauma. Professional care is necessary to tackle the complex interaction of addictive substances and traumatic experiences.

Trauma and addiction are intimately linked, and with the myriad of forms that trauma can take, it is common to turn to addictive substances to cope. At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, we understand the unique and difficult trials presented by both addiction and traumatic experiences. We are prepared to help you address trauma and substance use in tandem to create a healthy and sober future. We can help you from your first step into detox and residential care to ongoing outpatient support, providing a personalized approach to your unique symptoms and needs in recovery. Between dedicated recovery groups, a supportive and calm atmosphere, and a community of like-minded peers and professionals, we can be your first step to a healthy future. For more information on how Pacific Sands Recovery Center can help you, or to speak to a caring professional about your situation, call (949) 426-7962.

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