Linking Trauma to Addiction and Discovering New Treatment Options
People have many misconceptions about what causes addiction. They assume that those who use drugs must be deficient in character. They think these people suffer from a lack of morals, willpower, or motivation to change. These same critics would never judge someone suffering from cancer or a heart condition. Yet addiction is also a disease, and a quite complicated one at that. Giving up drugs and other addictive substances takes more than inner fortitude or a good moral compass. This is because drugs modify brain chemistry, creating barriers to change, even if the person desperately wants to quit. Fortunately, ongoing research continues to offer new options that can help treat those suffering and offer them hope for recovery.
One area in which new information has come to light is discovering what causes addiction. While each case is unique, several factors can increase the possibility that a person could experience addiction. These risk factors include:
- A family history of addiction, due either to genetic factors or upbringing
- Neglect or abuse during childhood
- A history of psychological issues
- Peer pressure
The Significance of Childhood Trauma
Of these, what is often overlooked when helping someone overcome addiction is the contribution of trauma, particularly childhood trauma. Only in the last decade or so has the significance of this factor come into play.
There is a strong correlation between physical, emotional, and sexual abuse occurring among minors and later substance use disorders. In addition, traumatic childhood experiences are predictive of PTSD symptoms later in life. A research study of an urban population found that those who were traumatized in their youth were much more likely to develop substance use disorders. The high rates of addiction included 39% for alcohol, 44.8% for marijuana, 6.2% for opiates, including heroin, and a surprising 34.1% for cocaine. Not only did childhood trauma contribute significantly to adult rates of addiction, but these effects were independent of traumatic experiences occurring in adulthood.
Other types of distressing experiences that can have a lasting impact on young people include accidents, the death of a loved one, or a natural disaster.
While the connection between past experiences and present dependency is now the norm, the most important consideration is how to use this information to help a client find healthier mechanisms to cope with their pain, so they can overcome it and heal. Fortunately, there are many treatment modalities that can help. The key to progress is understanding how dependency begins in the first place.
How Trauma Modifies Brain Chemistry
Trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may affect up to 8% of Americans at some point in their lives. Depression and substance abuse are often associated with this. Because the brain changes in structure and function from early childhood to later in life, pinpointing when the trauma occurred is a key factor in understanding and treating the client’s symptoms.
In the first five years of life, there is an overall expansion of brain volume. After about the age of 7, however, and until adulthood, there continues to be an increase in white matter with a concurrent decrease in gray matter. Later in life, there is no change in white matter, but gray matter continues to decline. Other changes also occur in the brain as people age.
Because of these changes that are a normal part of the aging process, trauma that occurs at different stages in life will have varying effects on brain chemistry. While most children enjoy beneficial experiences that help their brains develop in positive ways, negative childhood experiences can lead to cognitive issues and cause anomalies in the structure of the brain that may contribute to later drug dependency.
The Connection Between Trauma and Substance Abuse
While not everyone who experiences childhood trauma goes on to develop drug dependency issues, there is an undeniable link. A compelling study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas shows the significance of childhood trauma when it comes to addiction. They defined trauma as abuse or neglect that lasted for at least six months. Additionally, dramatic events such as losing a parent or having a life-threatening illness were considered.
The participants were contacted for follow-up every six months for an average of three and a half years. When compared with the control group, children who had been abused were five times as likely to develop depression and four times as likely to develop substance use disorder.
Children who had been maltreated manifested connectivity issues in several areas of the brain. These differences were detected even before any psychiatric problems had developed. The areas affected included those that involve language processing, the ability to plan behavior, and integrating emotional processing with abstract thought
The teens who developed issues with substance abuse were the ones most likely to have had damage to the parts of their brain that helped them regulate their emotions and integrate them with their thought processes.
Avoiding Pain, Not Seeking Pleasure
These findings, while not conclusive due to the small sample size, are suggestive. It may be the case that addiction results from an attempt to manage or avoid pain rather than a desire for pleasure. Understanding these underlying causes helps professionals to tailor treatments that are best for helping clients and giving them hope.
While childhood trauma can be a source of deep and lasting pain that results in susceptibility to addiction later in life, it is not the only cause. Studies of veterans who have experienced PTSD as well as adult survivors of rape or physical abuse, natural disasters, illnesses, and accidents all show that these experiences increase the chances that someone will be susceptible to a substance use disorder. Some sources estimate that as many as 75% of those who have experienced a traumatic event may later develop dependency issues.
However, there are ways to help after a traumatic event occurs that can help prevent substance abuse. Raising awareness is the first step. There are a number of strategies that can either prevent adverse childhood experiences or mitigate their effects. The most important thing is to recognize that a person suffering from substance use disorder is engaging in comfort-seeking behavior. This often compulsive condition is normal for someone who has experienced trauma. When clients experience respect and understanding, healing becomes possible.
Early Detection and Treatment Are Important
If assistance is available soon after a traumatic experience, the individual it is less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. Unfortunately, many people feel shame of what they are going through. They consider it a weakness to need help. If they are already starting to self-medicate, it embarasses them to admit they have a substance dependency.
Mental health concerns have previously been taboo in our society, leaving many people suffering in silence. Now, it is much more common for people to seek therapy. This can be counseling through schools for troubled children. It may be group sessions for those experiencing the loss of a loved one, or individual sessions for those suffering from trauma such as rape or physical abuse.
Resilience research has shown that the brain, even later in life, is still malleable. Even after extreme trauma, the brain and body try to heal themselves. When individuals integrate resilience-building practices into their daily lives, it increases their chances of overcoming trauma.
When intervention occurs early enough, substance abuse can often be prevented as the root cause is dealt with. However, even if some time has passed since the initial traumatic event, the situation is not hopeless. More intensive options may be necessary, but there are resources to help even those who have been living for years with their pain.
Resources Are Available
Fortunately, if you are someone who has experienced trauma, you do not have to suffer alone and in silence. Modern science helps us gain an understanding of how trauma leads to actual physical and chemical changes in the brain. Compassion is now replacing judgment, and better treatment approaches is available. The best approaches are holistic ones that don’t focus solely on the body or mind but allow an interplay of different healing modalities.
Remember that no one wakes up and decides they want to become addicted to alcohol or drugs. The issue is that they are in pain and have no better coping mechanism. Professionals can help guide clients to healthier options. Addressing the underlying issue empowers the client to seek alternatives that result in a better life. It is possible to find happiness on the other side of recovery from addiction.
At Granite Recovery Centers, we have been helping to transform lives for over 10 years. Located in New Hampshire, our treatment centers offer holistic options including the full continuum of care, from evidence-based psychotherapies to the 12-step curriculum many are familiar with. Clients who are in recovery thanks to our programs are part of a growing, thriving community.
The first step is often medical detoxification. Medical professionals support and supervise this process, including doctors and other specialists who help manage the risks at hand. Physical consequences can come with withdrawal from many addictive substances. It’s important to have a medical team in place to guide the client through the process to minimize side effects.
Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency.
Mental Health Program
To help clients deal with the pain of trauma that may be the underlying cause of their substance use disorder, Granite Recovery Centers offer comprehensive mental health therapies.
Our professional and compassionate team views clients with kindness and respect. They understand that trauma causes structural and chemical changes to the brain. This impacts the client’s behavior as well as their emotional and psychological well-being. This can have a significant impact on one’s daily life. Often the coping strategy used prior to treatment was self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
Given that one in five adults has a mental health diagnosis, having treatment options is essential. Not only is trauma addressed, but so are factors such as genetics, environment, and modifications to brain chemistry. The treatment philosophy is individual because each client is unique.
Three levels of treatment are available depending on the client’s needs. These are residential, inpatient, and dual diagnosis. In addition to a 12-step program, cognitive behavioral therapies are used as well as holistic modalities like meditation and socially geared therapies like peer-to-peer workshops.
Once a client has made sufficient progress on the road to recovery, the final step might include an outpatient treatment program. We offer this because the path to recovery from addiction has many challenges. While clients who have completed residential and inpatient treatment have made immense progress, they may still need professional support on an ongoing or occasional basis to deal with temptation.
The types of assistance provided by a well-managed outpatient recovery program assist patients in transitioning to healthy, long-lasting sobriety. This allows clients to practice and hone the skills they need to successfully sustain a sober and productive life.