Why Trauma Often Leads to Addiction

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trauma and alcoholism

Trauma and alcoholism often co-occur. Learn about the link between these two disorders.

When you find yourself dealing with alcoholism, you might wonder how it even happened. What was the trigger for developing a drinking problem in the first place?

For many people, the habit of heavy drinking was launched as a result of trauma. In fact, those with PTSD are especially prone to substance abuse, as alcohol becomes a salve to numb the symptoms.

Unresolved trauma combined with disordered drinking can lead to a dual diagnosis. This is the condition where both a substance use disorder coexists with a mental health disorder. Treating a dual diagnosis relies on special clinical expertise, where addiction treatment is combined with mental health treatment. Read on to learn more about the link between trauma and alcoholism.

Understanding the Impact of Trauma

Trauma is in essence a heightened stress response after someone has witnessed or experienced a startling or disturbing event. The effects of trauma to the body and the mind follow an intense fight or flight response. This is the feeling that your life is threatened, or that you have no control over a dangerous situation.

Examples of traumatic events include:

  • Sexual assault.
  • Physical assault.
  • Natural disasters.
  • A serious car crash.
  • Sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one.
  • Witnessing a violent event.
  • Childhood abuse.
  • Combat-related trauma.

When the shock of the trauma does not resolve within a month, it is then called PTSD. PTSD impacts about 7% of the U.S. population.

In most cases, people who have been traumatized can process the effects of the event and move past it. Those with PTSD, though, continue to relive the trauma for months and even years after the event.

PTSD has certain features that make it unique from other anxiety disorders. One such feature is a high level of substance abuse, of which alcohol abuse is the most common.

Alcohol abuse becomes a numbing agent to help the person dull the senses, their feelings, and the memories.

Other PTSD symptoms include:

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  • Re-experiencing. Someone with PTSD will relive the traumatic event repeatedly through flashbacks, nightmares, or trauma-related triggers. The emotional reactions to these memories are also re-experienced.
  • Hyper-arousal. They tend to be on edge much of the time. They may appear jittery, agitated, angry, and easily excitable or startled.
  • Avoidance. They will avoid the places, situations, or people that trigger disturbing memories of the event.
  • Mood. They exhibit detachment, mistrust, signs of depression, guilt, loss of interest in daily life, and social isolation.

Stages of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorders (AUD) occur on a continuum. This means that as the disease deepens, the symptoms change, reflecting a more severe form of the AUD. Some may never progress past the early stage, where others may quickly escalate through the stages:

  • Early stage. Early stage AUD is not always easy to detect. People in this stage may still be high functioning and show few overt signs. As tolerance builds, the drinking increases. Symptoms may include alcohol cravings, increased consumption, and being unable to moderate intake.
  • Middle stage. Middle stage AUD will expose the social, physical, and psychological effects. Attempts are made to hide alcohol or to lie about the level of drinking. Symptoms may include shakiness or hand tremors, severe headaches, depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, nausea, mood swings, and sweating.
  • Late stage. Late stage, or end stage, alcoholism features a complete loss of control over the substance. Negative life consequences pile up, such as job loss, relationship turmoil, child custody issues, financial and legal problems. Health problems worsen, like hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, and even brain damage. Highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms emerge.

Is There A Link Between Trauma and Addiction?

Whether the person experienced a trauma in childhood or in adulthood, there is an increased likelihood that a problem with alcohol will occur. The impact of a trauma on a child is especially severe. As NIDA reports, about two-thirds of people in treatment for AUD have a history of childhood abuse.

Alcohol use is a common response to the symptoms of anxiety or depression that emerge as a result of emotional pain. Too often, sadly, the disordered drinking will develop into an AUD, only adding another layer of suffering.

How to Overcome Both Trauma and Alcoholism

Until the underlying trauma is unwound, processed, and healed through therapy, the alcohol problem will persist. This is why both of these conditions must be addressed at the same time in treatment.

After an alcohol detox is completed, a dual diagnosis treatment program is the correct level of care. The treatment plan will be tailored to help the person with both disorders using a combination of therapies:

  • CBT
  • Trauma-focused CBT.
  • Exposure therapy.
  • EMDR
  • DBT
  • Process group.
  • Family therapy.
  • Holistic methods.
  • 12-Step program.

The Importance of Continuing Care

While detox and rehab are a great start to a life in recovery, what happens after treatment is just as important. Early recovery puts people at high risk of relapse. Without the substance to numb feelings, any trauma triggers could spark a relapse. To reduce the risk you must engage in continuing care efforts to help maintain sobriety.

Continuing care includes:

  • Outpatient services, such as therapy, support groups, and life skills classes.
  • Sober living housing, which can be protective against relapse.
  • Finding a local A.A. group and getting a sponsor.
  • Forming healthy daily habits, like regular workouts, eating a healthy diet, and getting good sleep.
  • Making new sober friends, through sober meet up groups, joining a sober gym, or through A.A. meetings.

If you are struggling with the dual diagnosis of trauma and alcoholism, there is help out there. Isn’t it time you lived your best life, one that is healthy and peaceful? Reach out today.

Journey Hillside Tarzana Comprehensive Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Journey Hillside offers a highly effective treatment program for those who are battling alcoholism and co-occurring trauma. If you are ready to change your life, call us today at (877) 414-1024.