Every person defines trauma in different ways. For some, it can be an ongoing history of domestic violence; for others, it can be one event such as sexual assault.
Trauma is difficult to define because it impacts each individual in a personal manner. Many of those who turn to alcohol or drugs suffer from post-traumatic stress, and a body of research supports the notion that trauma sufferers turn to substances to self-medicate and alleviate their symptoms.
The correlation between trauma and substance abuse is high not only for adults but also for youth. One National Survey of Adolescents found that teens who had experienced a traumatic event of any variety were three times more likely than their peers to report past or current substance use. Additionally, surveys of adolescents receiving addiction treatment found that more than 70 percent have been exposed to trauma.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes trauma as something that results from “an event, series of events or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.”
Often times, people who suffer from trauma can definitively connect the specific event or events — and it may be something dating far back to childhood.
Research, in fact, has found strong links between traumatization in childhood and substance abuse disorders, as well as a joint connection with outcome of PTSD. Some individuals, however, don’t realize the link because the event is in the distant past.
Healing Trauma and Recovery Go Hand in Hand
Recovering individuals, or their family members, may have the expectation that once the substance use disorder is being treated, the results of the trauma will take care of themselves. The opposite is true — if the underlying cause of traumatization is not addressed, chances of recovery are greatly diminished.
In the past, it was common to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress and substance abuse in sequence. However, integrated approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy of both conditions have proven more successful.
Providers such as Olalla Recovery Centers, utilize a trauma-informed care approach in assessing and treating individuals who suffer both from trauma and alcohol or drug abuse. It doesn’t have to feel overwhelming — with professional guidance and a personalized plan, this challenge is surmountable.
The important part is to start the journey. Don’t worry about the destination — you can get there, even if you only take small steps, and that is all that matters.