The Tragic Effects of Trauma on Addiction

Trauma has no respect for anyone, no matter their status in life. It touches the poor, the rich, male, female, gender fluid persons, people on all levels of the sexuality spectrum, well known and out of the spotlight. It doesn’t matter what kind of person, trauma will likely affect their lives at some point. Even in Florida, it touches every one of us eventually. In those rare lives where someone doesn’t experience a great personal trauma, it is highly likely that someone they are close to will experience some kind of event that changes them and then indirectly the other people in their lives. Different kinds of trauma are more common in some communities than others, but trauma in general is, it seems, a tragic universal element of the human experience.


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or the SAMHSA, defines trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”


The way someone experiences trauma is directly related to their own experiences leading up to the traumatic event. Of course there are some events that are traumatic no matter what you’ve experienced in your life, but some experiences that may trigger mental health complications in one person, may not affect someone else as much. The important thing to remember is that if someone feels traumatized that it doesn’t matter if the particular event that has hurt them measures up or appears on an official list – it is far better to measure someone’s behaviors to discover how the event in question has affected the person on an everyday life kind of level before any kind of true assessment of mental health or stability comes into play.


Facts from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration About Trauma:

  • Between 15% to 25% of women have a lifetime history of sexual abuse be it in childhood or adulthood.
  • Within the different definitions and forms of domestic abuse, domestic violence among women in the United States ranges from 9% to 44%.
  • When RAND Corporation did a study in 2008, they found that almost 19% of veterans returning from their time in the military on deployment or some other kind of mission reported presenting with signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Almost 19% of the men in the United States, and more than 15% of women in the United
  • States report having experienced a natural disaster at some point in their lives.


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration continues to state that the cost of domestic abuse, intimate partner violence comes out to 8.3 billion dollars in 2003. The cost includes treatment for the medical care and needs of the victim, treatment for mental health rehabilitation for the traumatized victims and the lost productivity of the people who experienced the trauma. Billions of dollars spent isn’t something that is easy to ignore. This shows, especially because the number includes loss of productivity, that trauma affects more than just the person who experiences the event in question. The devastation on individual lives is serious and can change the entire life of someone, but it also hurts the community at large in socioeconomic ways, by instilling a sense of fear or danger in the community, or by depriving a community of strong voices and actors who could be propping up the community rather than suffering within it. Indeed, like alcohol and drug addiction, human trauma and the way we deal with it is a world wide crisis.  

Trauma and addiction are by their very natures linked to one another. Someone who has experienced great trauma in their lives may be desperate for treatment, desperate for something, anything to offer relief to their daunting and sometimes debilitating symptoms. This might lead them to substance abuse as a way to self medicate. The way society looks at behavioral health is becoming less stigmatized and treatment for mental health disorders is becoming more available, but psychotherapy is often more expensive than someone who has experienced trauma can manage and too few resources exist in our communities to help all of the people who struggle with mental health in poorer socioeconomic situations. Even if a person has the money for treatment, they may be stalled in seeking out therapy due to overwhelming feelings of shame or like their experience is illegitimate. Reaching for a substance to lessen the pain feels more possible than other options. Therefore people who suffer from trauma often end up also suffering from addictions to drugs and alcohol.


Addicts and Abuse: How Trauma Drives Addiction

The numbers don’t lie. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network shows that trauma and alcohol and drug addiction are all but inseparable in their Making the Connection: Trauma and Substance Abuse white paper. Someone who has a history of childhood trauma is five times more likely to develop alcoholism and almost 50% more likely to develop a drug addiction. Multiple studies that the white paper cites have shown that up to 76% of  teenagers who are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction developed their chemical dependency and addiction after they experienced some kind of traumatic event. Many people who experience trauma end up developing a mental health disorder. Often they develop post traumatic stress disorder, but they may also end up developing any number of other cooccurring disorders. The same studies as mentioned above show that the experienced trauma may make it difficult for an adolescent to quit consuming the addictive substance they are using because post traumatic stress disorder when combined with substance abuse equals a dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis must be treated simultaneously. The PTSD, or other kind of mental health disorder present, and the drug or alcohol use disorder then frustrate each other, making the symptoms of one makes the other worse as the two disorders play off of one another in cycle of alcohol or drug addiction and mental health problems.


Common Types of Trauma

  • The death of someone close to you
  • Going through divorce as either one of the people espoused to one another, or as a child of parents divorcing
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Rape
  • Domestic abuse as a child or an adult
  • Chronic pain
  • Neglect
  • Homelessness
  • Emotional abuse in the workplace
  • Emotional abuse by a partner or parent
  • Natural disaster
  • Witnessing a violent act against someone else


Dual Diagnosis

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a dual diagnosis, otherwise known as a cooccurring disorder or a comorbidity, is when an addict suffers from both a chemical dependency, be it alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs, as well as some form of mental illness – both disorders at the same time. It doesn’t matter which came first the mental health complications, or the chemical dependency and emotional addiction to an addictive substance, the issues two frustrate each other and ultimately lead to more relentless and life threatening addiction and more severe and formidable mental health disorders.


The trickiest part of a dual diagnosis is treatment. A person struggling to recover from drug or alcohol addiction who also has a dual diagnosis cannot decide to attack one of the problems and come back around for the other. It is true that before the understanding of mental health disorders and addiction from a scientific perspective, doctors would often throw their hands up in a perceived inability to treat mental health when the person “insisted” on continuing to drink or use whatever substance they were chemically dependent on. The interesting thing about this is that mental health disorders also come with a hefty stigma, so whether the doctor would have treated the hypothetical patient is questionable if they were willing to try and avoid treating someone who was also an addict by shaming them. Luckily today most doctors wouldn’t ever turn someone away due to either issue –  mental illness or addiction to a drug or alcohol.


Some Common Mental Health Disorders That Can Act As a Dual Diagnosis to Drug or Alcohol Addiction:

Even though we think of post traumatic stress disorder as the mental illness that follows trauma, many people with PTSD also experience other mental  health disorders. The following is a list of mental health illnesses that can accompany a drug or alcohol addiction.


  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD – post traumatic disorder is a mental health disorder that usually occurs in someone who has gone through or witnessed some kind of traumatic event like a natural disaster, a violent crime, war or combat, or any serious accident. People with PTSD experience thoughts and emotions that disturb and disrupt their lives. Flashbacks, nightmares, and overwhelming fear can make the victim relive the trauma over and over again.
  • Major Depressive Disorder – Major Depressive Disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by low energy, a loss of interest in the things the person was previously drawn to or even passionate about, extreme weight loss or weight gain, severe insomnia, and  suicidal ideation. There are several different kinds of depressive mood disorders that vary in character and develop under different circumstances.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD – Generalized Anxiety Disorder is diagnosed when patients present with a tenacious unease and foreboding about any number of different issues in their lives. In people who suffer from anxiety disorder, their anxiety is often ever present. This disorder is sometimes dismissed by people not suffering from it as the afflicted person being a “worry wart”, but GAD is a medical illness that requires medical treatment and neuro treatment. Some common worries are career related, financial in nature, family stuff, or other anxieties. Victims of GAD usually are aware of the irrationality of their anxiety on a proportional level, but due to a deep fear of being out of control, they try to proactively take control of risky or possibly worry inducing situations.
  • Bipolar DisorderBipolar disorder is characterized by a person who experiences shifting moods. These moods can range from manic to depressive and several steps in between. Bipolar disorder continues to be studied and psychiatrists continue to shift their understanding of the disorder as new studies come out. Currently it is believed that where it was thought  that only two poles existed for victims of this illness, there is actually a spectrum. Someone can be hypomanic, which is a mood characterized by high energy, sometimes to the point of disrupting the patient’s life but rarely shown to be violent or self harming. There are some people who suffer from a kind of bipolar disorder that is mostly representative of the depressive pole. This kind of bipolar disorder is “bipolar II disorder”.
  • Eating DisordersEating disorders are another mental illness that is heavy with the baggage of years worth of stigma–judgement, misconceptions, and social stigma play a deep role in sustaining  and driving the illness. There are many forms of eating disorder, not limited to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, purging disorder, pica, avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder, rumination syndrome, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, compulsive exercise, diabulimia, and others.
  • Personality DisorderPersonality disorder, sometimes also called emotional dysregulation disorder, is a kind of mental health disorder classified by the unstable moods of the person who is struggling with the mental illness. Unfortunately borderline line personality disorder is not a well understood disease, though it is a common one in the United States. Someone who suffers from Personality Disorder will likely experience symptoms of impulsivity, weak personal relationships, impaired social skills, feelings of worthlessness and insecurity, and great emotional instability.
  • Panic Disorder – Panic disorder manifests in someone through panic attacks. These acute episodes of intense fear or anxiety usually only last for a matter of minutes, but the symptoms of the attack are so extreme that sometimes the person experiencing the panic attack believes themselves to be dying. Some symptoms include heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath or a feeling like the person is being smothered, nausea, stomach cramps, lightheadedness, derealization, and depersonalization. Panic attacks usually peak in a matter of minutes and then begin to dissipate with more time. People often end up in the hospital the first time they experience a panic attack because of how severe the symptoms of the attack feel.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – Commonly called OCD, this disorder presents through a person’s reactions to their own rational or irrational thoughts and obsessive fear or paranoia. The person suffering from OCD sufferers great discomfort and from these obsessions. They haunt the person with the disorder. Unable to escape their own disturbing and often terrifying thoughts and specific anxieties, the person develops compulsive habits. These compulsions are the efforts of the person to try and ease their obsessions, to try and work against it or quiet it in some way.
  • Depersonalization Derealization Disorder – According to the Mayo Clinic, depersonalization derealization disorder is when a person feels like they are observing themself from outside of themselves, like an out of body experience, as if they are living in a dream. They may even feel as though they aren’t real at all.


Hope for Trauma Victims Struggling with Drug or Alcohol Addiction

Dr. J Douglas Bremner says that “Traumatic stressors such as early trauma can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects about 8% of Americans at some time in their lives, as well as depression, substance abuse, dissociation, personality disorders, and health problems For many trauma victims, PTSD can be a lifelong problem. The President’s New Freedom Commission Report highlights the Importance of providing services for mental disorders related to early trauma.”


The fact is, communities need to do a better job of supporting those who have been traumatized. But even for people who receive substantial support from loved ones and friends, trauma creates an environment of shame, feelings of worthlessness or survivors guilt  that can all cause a person to slip so easily into developing a drug or alcohol addiction. Indeed, it is even shown to be true that past trauma makes it even harder for an addict to recover from substance abuse because these symptoms of post trauma mental illnesses are deep in a person.

According to J. Douglas Bremner, MD, in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, traumatic stress can change someone’s brain chemistry. “Brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas. Traumatic stress is associated with increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors.” He goes on to tell his readers that trauma can shrink parts of the brain, increase certain hormones and chemicals, change memory function, and cause problems with their mental health. Trauma is a medical emergency that is all too often ignored or shoved aside.

When this happens people often develop addiction. FHE Health offers one of the top alcohol treatment centers in Florida. Alcohol detox programs in South Florida, including the detox center those at FHE, also have resources for those suffering from a drug addiction. FHE has a qualified staff of professional licensed individuals ready to help your recovery center medical detox be as effective as possible before starting the drug abuse rehab program. Drug and alcohol detox treatment options range from inpatient, outpatient and halfway in between. Call today to see how we can shape your drug and alcohol detox and an individual treatment program to meet your specific needs.

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