The relationship between trauma and substance use disorders is complex, but there’s no doubt that experiencing a traumatic event can be a trigger for drug or alcohol abuse in vulnerable individuals. Thus, trauma-informed care can be beneficial in promoting a lasting recovery.
How Trauma Leads to Substance Abuse
Some of the different types of traumas that can increase a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder include:
- The death of a loved one
- Living with a serious illness
- Prolonged poverty or severe financial distress
- Experiencing a natural disaster or terrorist attack
- Parental neglect or abandonment
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Being the victim of a crime
- Being involved in a serious car accident where someone was killed
- Combat-related violence in the military
Please note that experiencing a trauma does not automatically mean that a person will develop a substance use disorder. Genetics and environmental factors also play an important role. Gender can be a factor as well since men are more likely than women to turn to substance abuse after a trauma.
It appears that exposure to multiple types of traumas or trauma that occur in early childhood poses the biggest risk of leading to a substance use disorder. However, the presence of a strong support system and access to mental health resources provide valuable protective benefits.
Substance use disorders often begin when a person is struggling to cope with the impact that trauma has had on their daily life. They may begin to turn to drugs and alcohol to:
- Numb painful feelings
- Cope with physical pain
- Prevent nightmares
- Let out anger
- Stop flashbacks or disassociation
- Relax or reduce feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety
- Provide a visible indicator of how bad they feel
- Commit “slow suicide”
Many people who self-medicate the impact of trauma with substance abuse meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Characterized by intrusive thoughts about the incident that lead to significant mental distress, PTSD falls under the category of “Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
How Trauma-Informed Care Works
Trauma-informed care, also known as trauma therapy, refers to a general treatment approach that focuses on addressing the mental health effects of trauma and providing a person with the tools they need to start their healing journey.
The specific types of trauma therapy that may be recommended will depend on the form of trauma a person has suffered and their unique therapeutic goals. However, some of the most popular treatments include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy focuses on identifying distorted or upsetting beliefs that are related to the trauma and providing a supportive environment in which to learn skills to help cope with emotional stress.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). A specialized type of CBT, CPT seeks to help individuals create a new understanding of the traumatic event so that it reduces its ongoing negative effects on their current life.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR involves focusing on a trauma memory while experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements). This leads to a reduction in the emotional response associated with the trauma by changing the way the memory is stored in the brain.
- Exposure therapy. In exposure therapy, individuals are exposed to situations or triggers that lead to anxiety so they can gradually confront and overcome their trauma.
- Psychopharmacology. Medications can’t address trauma on their own, but they may be recommended to address specific symptoms and/or chemical imbalances in the brain.
The general principles of trauma-informed care are as follows:
- Safety. Take all necessary steps to ensure the physical and emotional safety of the individual.
- Trustworthiness. Communicate openly and honestly while maintaining clear and appropriate boundaries with the individual.
- Choice. Provide choices and control over how treatment proceeds.
- Collaboration. Encourage the individual to share power in decision making, so they are an active participant in their care.
- Empowerment. Identify current strengths and prioritize skill-building, so the individual becomes confident in their ability to deal with the trauma on a long-term basis.
We’re Here to Help
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, we believe that a lasting recovery requires a careful look at the underlying factors that contribute to substance abuse. Our holistic treatment services seek to heal the mind, body, and spirit—which includes addressing the effects of past trauma. We are also honored to partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs Community Care Network and PsychArmor as Veteran-Ready programs providing trauma-informed care using evidence-based practices that are proven effective with those who have bravely served our country.
If you’re ready to break free from the burden of addiction, asking for help is the first step towards a brighter future. Contact our admissions representatives to learn more about our Pennsylvania addiction treatment options.