You might be surprised to learn that traumatic events and addiction have a distinct connection. Whether your trauma is based on childhood or beyond, the fact is that your past experiences could leave you more susceptible to substance abuse.
You’re not alone if you or a loved one are affected by addiction from traumatic events. One study showed that out of 587 highly traumatized participants, up to 39% had high substance abuse disorder (SUD) rates.1
Understanding the impact of traumatic events on addiction is an integral part of addiction recovery for many. Arming yourself with the proper knowledge empowers you to tackle the traumatic events of your past and overcome addiction.
Today, we’ll discuss the effects on the brain, how childhood trauma can lead to addiction in adolescence or adulthood, and what treatment options are available.
Effects on the Brain From Trauma
Trauma and addiction have a link due to the effect on the brain that occurs when traumatic events occur. Because when events like this happen, neural pathways in the brain can be formed or even broken.
Trauma’s impacts on a person can last for days, months, or even years. The effects of trauma can vary and include the following:
Trauma can even change the physical anatomy of the brain. The hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for storing and retrieving memories, was visibly smaller in those with a history of trauma. It can also impact the amygdala, responsible for processing emotional memory and survival instincts. 3
The effects of trauma on the brain don’t stop there. When the brain is constantly exposed to stressors, it affects its ability to regulate itself. Even when traumatic events are not occurring, the brain can lose its ability to regulate. This results in fatigue of not only the body but the immune and adrenal systems, as well.
These changes in the brain can lead to severe mental illness in the long term. About 8% of Americans develop a disorder called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to exposure to traumatic events.4 PTSD is considered a risk factor for addiction since many people attempt to self-medicate for the disorder by turning to substance abuse.
Childhood Traumatic Events and Addiction
During childhood, the brain creates, fortifies, and can sever connections in neural pathways. This can lead to positive results, such as high self-esteem and intelligence. However, when bad things happen, they can also have detrimental effects. One of these adverse effects includes making an individual more likely to struggle with addiction in their lifetime.
More specifically, traumatic events have a negative impact on social, emotional, and behavioral aspects. But where does the link between trauma and addiction arise?
The science behind the link is precise: when children are subject to maltreatment, abnormally high levels of stress result. The release of cortisol in the body can continue whether the related maltreatment is ongoing or isolated to one event. The extended exposure of the body to this hormone can lead to blunted cortisol reactivity, which is linked to addiction.2
Another common occurrence for those subjected to childhood trauma is the dysregulation of the stress system in the brain. When threats occur in a child’s environment, a “fight or flight” response occurs. While this innate response is intended to keep the child safe, it can work against them and continue to have adverse effects into adolescence and adulthood.
When traumatic events are every day in a child’s life, the threat that triggers the “fight or flight” response is never resolved. This exacerbates the dysregulation of the stress system, which can cause an array of persistent feelings, including:
- Emotional arousal
The good news is that even if you’ve been a victim of childhood trauma, help is available to you. You can pursue addiction recovery in many ways, including holistic treatments and dual diagnoses that treat your condition as a whole.
The Tie Between Trauma and Addiction
One of the most prevalent causes of drug addiction is simple: people want to feel good.5 When people with mental or physical health disorders start to use drugs, it makes them feel good. Science shows that the primary reason for this is the release of dopamine into a brain region called the basal ganglia.6
However, with time, the brain starts to acclimate to the release of dopamine, which means a higher dose of drugs is needed to have the same effect. Studies have also shown that regular drug use negatively impacts the brain’s ability to produce, absorb, or transmit dopamine. 7
Mental disorders like anxiety caused by trauma can also leave individuals more susceptible to drug addiction. Many addictive substances like opioids and benzodiazepines elicit a calming effect. Some drugs can even physically slow down the central nervous system, which combats the effects of anxiety and emotional hyperarousal.
Drug use can also result from trauma that causes responses from the other end of the spectrum. Traumatic events like sexual abuse can cause lasting feelings of numbness or dissociation. Drugs like cocaine and amphetamines can allow victims of these types of trauma to feel sensations they don’t otherwise experience.
Overall, it’s clear that exposure to trauma can have lasting effects on victims. The truth about drug addiction is that many people don’t use drugs just to “get high.” Instead, the results that trauma has left on their brains make it difficult to cope without support, which causes them to turn to drugs.
Fortunately, there are other ways to combat the effects of trauma that don’t involve substance abuse. Though recovery can be long and bumpy, happiness and fulfillment can be had when sobriety happens.
Treating Addiction Caused by Traumatic Events
No doubt, being exposed to trauma can lead to addiction. Luckily, the damage that trauma inflicts on the brain is not irreparable. With the right tools and support, you can start your journey to addiction recovery.
When trauma causes addiction, special treatment is needed to lead to addiction recovery successfully. This dual diagnosis treatment process can help you learn the coping mechanisms to overcome mental illness and treat drug addiction simultaneously.
At Silver Sands Recovery, we have the knowledge and expertise needed to treat trauma and drug addiction effectively. Our team of therapists is well-versed in healing the underlying complex trauma that leads to drug abuse. You don’t need to face drug addiction alone – contact us to make the first step today.
About the author:
Lisa Waknin is the Founder and Director of Silver Sands Recovery, located in Prescott, Arizona. Lisa started Silver Sands Recovery after immersing herself in the addiction treatment world for several years to figure out what could be done differently to help her daughter and others like her to overcome addiction and stay sober. She believes in a hands-on treatment approach, which includes taking someone out of their environment, providing a 90-day program in a structured environment. During treatment, clients not only recover physically but also learn to live their life again. Lisa is a sought-after expert speaker for recovery support groups, charities, schools, communities, and companies wanting to educate themselves on the explosion of opiate and heroin abuse in our country and the best way to understand, treat, and beat it.