Why Addiction Treatment Must Adopt a Trauma-informed Approach to Be Effective

Patient woman talking with professional psychologist,Therapist conducting a consultation and counseling at hospital

For years, mental health professionals and addiction specialists have extensively examined the correlation between addiction and trauma. Unsurprisingly, they’ve discovered a profound connection between individuals who have experienced trauma and those who struggle with substance abuse or engage in other addictive behaviors like gambling or sex addiction.

The statistics regarding substance abuse and trauma can be startling to many. For example, up to 80% of Vietnam veterans seeking post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment have alcohol use disorders.

Meanwhile, several studies have found that substance use developed following trauma exposure or the onset of PTSD in a high proportion of teens with substance abuse disorders.

Additional research suggests that for each increase in the number of childhood adversities experienced, the risk of a drug use problem increases by 30%–40%.

These findings highlight the undeniable impact of trauma on addiction and emphasize the importance of addressing both issues in a comprehensive and integrated manner.

What is trauma?

Trauma can best be described as the damage or injury to someone’s psyche experienced after an extremely frightening or distressing event that shatters an individual’s sense of safety and security. When trauma occurs, one may feel isolated and helpless and perceive the world as threatening or dangerous.

Many people undergo traumatic events during their early years and tend to suppress these distressing memories, which can resurface later in adulthood and have long-lasting negative effects on well-being, especially if the resulting symptoms remain unaddressed. 

A range of events and circumstances can trigger trauma. Whether it stems from a single significant incident (acute) or a series of repeated events (chronic), each person responds to stress in a unique way and is affected differently.

Image of the blog post "Why it's not okay to not be okay" on Tikvah Lake

Some examples of events that can induce trauma include:

  • The sudden loss of a loved one
  • Receiving a diagnosis of a terminal or severe illness
  • Being involved in a serious accident
  • Being a survivor of child abuse or neglect
  • Observing domestic violence between parents or other family members
  • Working in the military or disaster rescue and relief
  • Enduring domestic abuse or intimate partner violence
  • Going through a painful relationship breakup
  • Experiencing a childhood illness
  • Witnessing distressing incidents or unsettling events, whether singular or recurring
  • Enduring negative interactions with primary caregivers
  • A lack of support during childhood
  • Suffering a physical injury
  • Experiencing a humiliating event

The body’s response to trauma

People’s susceptibility to trauma varies. How we react to traumatic events or experiences often depends on our past encounters and individual personalities.

When triggered, a person’s trauma response can manifest through various psychological and physiological symptoms, including:

  • Struggles with anxiety and depression
  • Experiencing distressing emotions
  • Feeling distant or detached
  • Being constantly ‘on guard’/on high alert
  • Experiencing panic attacks
  • Having persistent, unsettling thoughts about what happened
  • Neglecting self-care
  • Having trouble sleeping and/or eating
  • Displaying irrational behavior
depressed man sitting in a corner. addiction concept

Many people who have experienced trauma exhibit reactions that appear disproportionate to the current situation. For example, they may become highly agitated or anxious in non-threatening circumstances. 

This is because the traumatized brain can’t distinguish between past events and the present moment. Traumatic memories can become trapped in the brain and central nervous system, causing the individual to re-experience the symptoms as if the traumatic event were happening all over again.

The connection between addiction and trauma

Addiction can result from many different behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. For some, it may begin as a subtle cry for help, a desire for solace and connection; others, however, may turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to numb emotional pain.

Substances can offer a temporary respite, a means to conceal psychological wounds. However, the numbing effects are only fleeting, and users eventually have to turn to stronger or more dangerous substances if they want to experience the same results.

In the past, war veterans returned from conflict-ridden regions and immediately reintegrated into everyday life without receiving proper treatment, despite being deeply traumatized by their experiences. For instance, a simple car backfiring or other loud noises could trigger panic. Others experienced overwhelming anger, fear, or confusion, feeling unsafe even in harmless situations.

As a result, veterans would often resort to using substances as a means to cope, leading to fluctuating between anger, rage, and emotional numbness. This left their families perplexed and unaware of the underlying issues they were facing.

Fortunately, advancements in research and technology have allowed for a deeper understanding of the effects of trauma. Now, we recognize this condition as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the medical community as a whole acknowledges the connection between adverse life experiences, substance misuse, and process addictions.

That’s why at Tikvah Lake Recovery, we provide dual-diagnostic treatment, which addresses both the symptoms of addiction and any underlying causes. By recognizing and addressing the root cause of addiction, including trauma, we provide comprehensive support to aid individuals in their journey toward lasting recovery.

Treating co-occurring addiction and trauma

Therapist cheering up his extremely depressed patient in modern room

There has been a significant shift towards a more positive approach to addiction and mental health in recent times. A trauma-informed approach to addiction treatment, centered on acceptance and compassion, recognizes that unresolved trauma can greatly increase the risk of relapse in the future.

A trauma-informed approach involves several key elements.

Firstly, it requires recognizing and acknowledging how trauma affects individuals in various ways and understanding potential triggers and sensitivities that trauma survivors may experience.

Psychotherapy, including approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Holistic Wellness, or Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), can help individuals accept that while traumatic experiences do not justify engaging in destructive behaviors or habits, with self-acceptance and self-compassion, they can foster self-forgiveness and an understanding that they did their best given the circumstances.

Secondly, a trauma-informed approach focuses on resisting re-traumatization and ensuring that every effort is made to prevent further harm. This means creating safe and supportive spaces where individuals feel heard, validated, and respected. It also involves implementing practices and policies that prioritize safety, trust, and empowerment.

Through comprehensive treatment programs and the support of a nurturing family system, individuals in recovery from addiction can embrace their true selves, gain profound wisdom and rediscover hope for a brighter future ahead.

Trauma-informed addiction treatment at Tikvah Lake

At Tikvah Lake Recovery, our team of mental health professionals is highly knowledgeable about trauma and its profound effects on both the mind and body. Through extensive training, they have acquired a deep understanding of trauma mechanisms, the coping strategies individuals employ, and the overall impact on well-being.

We understand that the journey to recovery can be challenging and filled with ups and downs. However, with the support of our specialized team, we’re dedicated to assisting in addressing the core issues underlying your addiction. Our goal is to guide you towards releasing the trauma from your past, enabling you to embrace a life free from the grips of addiction.

Reach out to us today to discover how our program can help you on your path to lasting recovery.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

Reader Interactions

Leave a comment