The Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction
If you, a friend, or a family member struggles with opiate abuse, you know that the relationship of a user to the drug is a complex one. Because no one person’s experience with addiction is universal, addiction treatment cannot be approached with one single, cookie-cutter approach. Often, addiction is simply the symptom of a larger problem with mental and emotional health, and these underlying and complex issues must also be considered when treating addiction.
For those that struggle with mental or emotional difficulties co-occurring with addiction, it’s necessary to institute a treatment that addresses both aspects. One frequent co-occurring disorder is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Because addiction and PTSD so commonly overlap, we’ve explored the relationship between addiction and trauma, uncovering why it frequently occurs and how it can be addressed in the process of treating addiction.
How Trauma Affects the Brain
Trauma survivors experience changes in the way they process emotions and events. The amygdala, which works to protect you from danger, goes into overdrive. This constant state of threat response causes a trauma survivor to feel anxious and fearful. If you or someone you love has experienced trauma, you might see these changes in the form of extreme nervousness, sudden emotional outbursts, or phobias. It can be an alienating and scary experience for both the survivor and their friends and family.
In addition to these changes, the brain’s hippocampus, which stores memories, fails to process the trauma as a “past tense” event, meaning the body feels it as a real and present threat. This leads to fatigue, as the body’s systems are constantly ready to fight something that isn’t there. The “fight or flight” response is always on, and it can be absolutely draining and depressing for those struggling to believe that the threat is gone.
Without proper treatment, a survivor feels scared and exhausted all the time. When fear is rooted in the mind, how can you escape it?
Self-medicating with opiates or other medication is commonly used as an attempt to find relief from the understandably overwhelming consequences of trauma. It’s no surprise, then, that about a third of all trauma survivors eventually develop an addiction. For survivors who experience trauma as children, two-thirds develop an addiction as adults.
How Trauma and Opiate Addiction Coincide
Through no fault of their own, a survivor of trauma’s brain chemistry makes them more susceptible to addiction. Trauma often results in the co-occurrence of chronic pain, either directly resulting from the trauma or as a consequence of the prolonged stress trauma has on the body. Trauma survivors are also more likely to be prescribed opiate analgesics for long-term pain than those who have not experienced trauma in their lifetime.
It’s a perfect storm: A survivor of trauma is more susceptible to opiate addiction, and also more likely to be prescribed opiates. Prescription opioids eliminate their pain, and also offer them relief from the anxious and fearful thoughts they may be experiencing. This leads to abuse of opiates in order to continue feeling the same euphoric effects.
Of course, this cycle can occur with illegal opiates too. A patient who develops an addiction to legal, prescription drugs may also turn to illegal substances like heroin when prescription pills become too expensive or too difficult to obtain.
A survivor of trauma may be well aware of the consequences of opiate abuse – it is simply not important in the face of the pain and mental struggle they may be encountering. If proper paths to treating trauma aren’t available, abuse can feel like the only option.
How to Combat Trauma and Addiction
Addiction frequently co-occurs with trauma and other psychiatric or mental ailments. It’s not enough to simply treat addiction without addressing the underlying causes or disorders that co-occur. While addiction is not always, or even usually, the result of trauma, it has to be considered in the course of treatment.
A compassionate approach to care addresses each patient and their individual experiences. Trauma and other life events can greatly impact a patient’s treatment. That’s why at OTCOA we pursue treatment that’s respectful of a patient’s individual circumstances. Our individualized and affordable care options are designed to treat you or your loved one as a person, not simply as an addiction.