The Connection Between Trauma and Substance Use

The Connection Between Trauma and Substance Use

By: Dr. Jasmyne A. Duval, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Financial instability, broken relationships, poor health, joblessness, crime, incarceration, and hopelessness – a few of the many consequences faced by individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol. Left untreated, the disease of addiction can be likened to a category 5 hurricane that leaves nothing in its path but devastation and disaster. Due to the extreme nature of the storm, its impact is felt by all innocent bystanders; no one is left unaffected. Those individuals facing this disease are often seen in our prisons, under our bridges, on our street corners, and sadly even in our mortuaries. Others are not as easy to identify – functioning like most others during the day, while drinking, smoking, injecting, or snorting away their pain by night. Despite differences in paths, many individuals plagued by substance use issues have one thing in common. . .TRAUMA.

A traumatic experience is an extremely stressful event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope in a healthy manner. Statistics reveal that individuals with histories of child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, domestic violence, and witnessing interpersonal violence comprise the majority of the clients served by substance abuse recovery facilities. Studies reveal that the intensity of the trauma is directly correlated to the risk for developing substance use issues. In other words, the greater the trauma, the greater the likelihood of developing an addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.

Victims of trauma are often left to deal with years of emotional pain, disturbing memories, and a general feeling of being unsafe. For many, seeking professional help regarding these experiences does not seem to be an option due to embarrassment, guilt, shame, fear, or denial. Oftentimes, these individuals turn to drugs and/or alcohol to medicate their issues, to escape pain, to numb themselves, or at times to just feel alive. Furthermore, trauma victims who turn to a life of substance use are at a higher risk for being re-traumatized due to the link between substance abuse and engagement in risky behaviors, such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, walking in unsafe neighborhoods, and hitchhiking. With that being said, not only does trauma increase the likelihood of developing substance abuse issues, but substance abuse increases the likelihood of experiencing trauma.

Unfortunately, trauma victims who abuse substances usually do not seek treatment until they have faced major consequences and their survival is at stake. While there are numerous treatment options available to individuals of all stages of life, it is best to intervene as soon as possible in order to avoid these dangerous encounters. If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event and does not use drugs or alcohol, it is greatly encouraged to speak with a mental health professional as soon as possible in order to decrease the risk of future addiction and other risky behaviors. If substance use has already made its way into the picture, be sure to seek a recovery center that integrates trauma-informed care with substance abuse treatment.

While the relationship between trauma and substance abuse is complex and intertwined, help is available and hope still remains. In the words of the late Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”