Trauma is defined as the unique individual experience of an event or enduring condition in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experienced is overwhelmed, and the individual experiences (either subjectively or objectively) a threat to his/her life, bodily integrity, or that of a care giver or family member. There are many types of traumatic experiences, including mental, psychological, and physical. Many people may experience trauma at some time in their lives, and not develop an addiction, but research clearly indicates a connection between addiction and trauma. Many individuals seek out not only drugs and/or alcohol, but other addictions such as eating disorders and compulsive sexual behavior to escape the pain of trauma.
Studies have shown that as many as 96% of treatment-seeking substance abusers reported experiencing some kind of major traumatic event.
Up to 34% of individuals in substance abuse treatment have a dual-diagnosis of addiction and PTSD. Trauma can occur in anyone, at any age, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic factors. Recognition of trauma as a root cause of addiction is not new. Treatment professionals have understood the role of trauma in the development of substance abuse disorders and relapse.
These statistics are from a report issued by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Department of Veterans Affairs:
- A diagnosis of PTSD increases the risk of developing alcohol and/or drug abuse.
- Ten to thirty-three percent of survivors of accidents, illnesses, or natural disasters report alcohol abuse.
- Both male and female sexual abuse survivors experience a higher rate of drug and/or alcohol abuse compared to those who have not experienced sexual abuse.
- Sources estimate that up to 75% of people who survive abuse and/or violent trauma develop substance abuse problems.
These studies show that when someone has experienced a traumatic event, they often seek out relief from the pain. Addiction to food, drugs, sex, gambling, etc., becomes a coping mechanism. Due to advances in science, we can now understand why.
“The amygdala (your brain’s threat detection center) can become overactive, engaging in a constant program of looking for, seeing and assessing threat. This will cause you to feel intensely anxious, vulnerable and fearful. The hippocampus (your brain’s center for processing memories) can become underactive. Rather than consolidating and then placing memories in the outer layer of the brain for long-term storage, memories get hung up in a present-day loop. The result: You will experience and re-experience intrusive, disturbing and uncomfortable recollections. The cortex (your brain’s center for executive control) becomes interrupted by survival-oriented instincts from deep inside your inner brain. These instincts overrule logical thinking, diminish cognitive processing and decrease your ability to inhibit behavior. Even when you try to refrain from addictive behavior you will experience an unstoppable urge to engage in it.”
Addiction is the desire to feel better, and trauma is often a root cause.
Sadly, most traumatic events that are likely to turn into addictive behaviors occur during childhood, or at a young age. The Adverse Childhood Experience study was based on data from over 17,000 patients. The study found direct correlation between severe childhood stress such as neglect, abuse, domestic violence, having a mentally ill or substance abusing parent, and various types of addictions. The results were clear. A child with four or more adverse experiences is five times more likely to become an alcoholic, 60% more likely to be obese, and 46 times more likely to become an injection user than children that did not have these adverse stressful experiences. The research found that the effects of trauma are cumulative, the most destructive being humiliation.
The first step in recovering from addiction is getting to the root causes, and for many individuals, they have to dig into their childhood where it all began.
Instead of feeling shame, guilt, and remorse for an addiction, it can be looked at as the way one learned how to cope with painful feelings. Once this is understood, the suffering individual can move past the addiction, which is only a symptom, and deal with the true underlying cause. Most people suffering from trauma will benefit from outside help such as counseling, therapy, or group meetings to work through the emotions and feelings attached to the trauma.
“Recognizing and Addressing Trauma in Infants, Young Children, and their Families.” Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.
Rosenthal, M. (2015, March). Trauma and Addiction: 7 Reasons Your Habit Makes Perfect Sense. Retrieved February 05, 2016.