Rape. Physical use. Bullying. Child use. PTSD. Emotional use. Domestic violence. Witnessing violence or natural disaster. Death or near death experiences. These types of events, along with many others, leave both children and adults with scars – the worst of which run much deeper than the surface. While many physical wounds may heal, emotional scars can leave the lives of those affected by trauma dead in their tracks. Trauma can change a person’s perspective and make it difficult to cope with life after it occurs. Unresolved trauma can stifle the lives of its victims, and one of the most common and dangerous coping mechanisms is substance use – and addiction. While no one plans to become dependent on substances, many people start abusing them to cope with trauma. But when when our team sat down to talk about the devastating effects of trauma – we wondered if there was a certain type of trauma that most likely lead to drug or alcohol addiction. Is there an experience that sways more people towards using heroin or taking benzos? Is there a type of trauma that is particularly likely to contribute to the development of an Oxycontin or alcohol addiction? The answer is apparent that any type of trauma can be just as damaging as the next. Trauma can take numerous forms, and affect each individual in a different way. What’s traumatizing to one person may not phase another. What causes long-term anxiety or emotionally debilitating reactions for one individual may be short-lived for another. One person could suffer severe effects from, say, a car wreck, while another could continue to function within the range of normality. We realized that the crucial factor isn’t what the event was, but how the person perceived and was able to cope with it. That being said, we took a look at some of the most commonly addressed traumas and how they are contributors to addiction: Sexual Use: In many cases, sexual assault or rape is perpetuated by someone whom the victim knows and trusts – such as a family member, family friend or acquaintance – and because of that, sexual trauma can also initiate the feeling of harsh betrayal. Because rape and sexual abuse are such traumatic experiences, self-medication often appears to be a preferable solution, rather than seeking help. Emotional strain and pain that relates to sexual abuse and rape may cause the victim to be embarrassed or afraid to seek medical attention or counseling – and in turn, lead to substance use to cope. Emotional and/or Physical Childhood Use: It shouldn’t hurt to be a child – but in many case all across the world, it does. And the effects of physical and emotional childhood use and neglect can extend far beyond the years of childhood. Among numerous devastating effects of childhood use is the increased likelihood to turn to drugs and alcohol later in life as a way to cope with nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of rage. These substances can dull the effects of stress – but also increase the risk of experiencing further trauma. Grief: When a loved one passes away or suffers a severe illness or injury, grieving can take an enormous emotional toll on the mental and emotional state of an individual. Different people deal with grief in various ways, and it can be incredibly complex – especially when the loss was a close friend or family member. Often times, complicated grief isn’t properly handled and can lead to anxiety, severe depression, PTSD, and substance misuse. People who experience this type of grief may attempt to numb the feelings of pain with drugs, alcohol, or prescription medications that may cause the grieving process to perpetuate – and increase the risk of developing a substance addiction. Crime or Accidents: Witnessing or being a victim of a wreck or a crime such as robbery or assault can leave more than just physical scars. Trauma from such events can alter the way people function in their daily life. For example, if a person was attacked in a grocery store parking lot, they may experience increased heart rate or panic when running errands, walking in a parking lot, or making a grocery list. Because people often experience horror, fear, rage, or a sense of helplessness when dealing with the effects of the trauma, using alcohol, drugs or prescription drugs help to remove the memories of the problem – temporarily. Natural Disaster: A single catastrophic incident, such as an earthquake, can be a life-changing traumatic event. An individual may suffer from re-experiencing that trauma through dreams, hallucinations, or flashbacks – replaying the scenario over and over again, thinking how they could have or should have reacted. A trauma survivor lies in a never-ending state of shame, pain and guilt – continually re-experiencing that horrifying event or situation. A person may try to avoid these intrusive memories by denial, emotional numbing, dissociation from reality, or self-medication. Self-medication and temporary relief through a drug or from alcohol often times leads to addiction. While each trauma is unique to the individual who experienced the event, there are some common themes:
- The person did not anticipate the event
- The person felt unprepared for the experience
- The person felt powerless to prevent the situation
- The situation wasn’t the person’s fault
There is not a single trauma that can be named as “the worst” for addiction – because anyone is prone to experience trauma, and they are likely to react in a unique way. We want you to know that regardless of whether your trauma was a one-time event, or repeated – it’s absolutely crucial that you seek professional therapy or counseling. Not managing trauma with an expert means you will find other ways to cope with the emotional pain and anxiety – whether it be drugs, alcohol, self-harm, or rage. There is help and there is a way to resolve past traumas, in a healthy way.