Trauma and Its Effects on Substance Use

December 15, 2022

Written By: Buena Vista Recovery

Trauma is a wholly transformative experience. In other words, traumatic experiences can fundamentally change a person’s life, with new stresses, anxieties, perspectives, and behaviors all stemming from their experience. Coping with the effects of trauma is difficult. Trauma can take many forms, and coping with the effects of trauma is anything but simple. 

Trying to placate difficult feelings and memories is normal. Commonly, many turn to addictive substances in an attempt to self-medicate traumatic experiences and their effects. Understanding trauma and its effects on substance use is paramount for creating an effective treatment plan for overcoming both trauma and addiction, paving the way for a healthy, sober life.

The Various Forms of Trauma

Traumatic experiences take many forms. Likewise, there is no form of trauma that is somehow “worse” than another. Trauma will always be a personal experience. However, depending on the kind of trauma experienced, traumatic experiences are classified into one of two categories: Capital “T” Trauma and lowercase “t” trauma. 

“T” Trauma

Capital “T” Trauma is often the class of traumatic experiences most immediately think of when discussing such profound experiences. This “Trauma” indicates extreme experiences such as natural disasters, critical disease diagnoses, or life-threatening violence, including armed robberies or school shootings. Some of the other experiences that may indicate Trauma include:

  • Death of a parent, spouse, or loved one
  • Major vehicular accidents
  • Sexual assault or abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Being in an active warzone
  • Threats to an individual’s life

Lowercase “t” trauma

Lowercase “t” trauma refers to experiences that are not as immediately life-threatening or extreme but still carry intense emotional weight. For some, this form of trauma can come as a result of non-life-threatening threats, such as the death of a pet. Some other forms of this class of trauma include: 

  • Bullying
  • Emotional abuse or neglect
  • Harassment
  • Divorce
  • Deterioration of close friendships

Trauma affects each individual differently, and both kinds of trauma can have profound effects. For some, childhood traumas can cause long-lasting effects as well as mediate the use of drugs or alcohol in life. Others may experience a life-changing trauma during adulthood that carries just as profound effects. Discussing these distressing experiences with professionals is the best way to create a personalized plan for recovering from traumatic experiences and the lasting effects they can have on an individual’s life.

The Role of Addictive Substances

There is nothing easy about overcoming trauma. Regardless of the type of trauma, these experiences can have profound effects on an individual’s emotional health and well-being. The use of drugs or alcohol is a common way to attempt to self-medicate these experiences. However, understanding the reason behind a person’s substance use is crucial for effectively overcoming the effects of trauma and co-occurring substance use problems.

For some, the use of addictive substances may feel necessary to quell feelings of depression, anxiety, panic, and more. Many may use alcohol and other drugs to navigate uncomfortable memories or flashbacks of traumatic events. Others may feel plagued by nightmares or insomnia and engage with addictive substances in an attempt to distance themselves from their own uncomfortable thoughts.

It is important to recognize that an individual’s perspective and sense of self-worth can be compromised as a result of trauma. As a result, many may turn to addictive substances to numb themselves or avoid confronting these difficult emotions. Regardless of the reason behind a person’s substance use, addressing the use of drugs and alcohol as well as any underlying traumatic experiences that may motivate substance use in tandem is essential for recovery. Often, professional treatment is required to effectively address this intense relationship.

The Cycle of Trauma and Addiction

While the use of drugs or alcohol may feel like temporary relief from the effects of trauma, their use does more harm than good. Self-medicating practices can worsen the effects of trauma and emotional distress in the long run. As the effects of these substances wear off, a combination of unresolved trauma and worsening symptoms will remain. Depression, anxiety, panic, and more are all common as a result of both trauma and addiction. These symptoms create a vicious cycle, as many will increase their substance use over time in an attempt to numb their pain.

Treating Trauma and Addiction Together

Overcoming addiction and trauma simultaneously is a difficult task. This is why professional treatment offering trauma-informed care is essential for recovery. Addressing an individual’s use of drugs or alcohol without addressing underlying traumatic experiences that have motivated their substance use can leave an individual vulnerable to a myriad of other emotional challenges. This can also leave an individual at a higher chance of relapse, especially if there are no strategies in place to address their emotional needs and ultimately overcome the effects of trauma.

Likewise, challenging traumatic experiences without acknowledging the effects that addictive substances have on a person’s emotional health can make these efforts even more complicated. The use of drugs and alcohol brings their own consequences, such as depression, anxiety, compromised self-worth, and an increased risk of developing an addiction.

Professional care is essential not only for establishing effective treatment and therapeutic practices but also for beginning the journey to understanding the complex relationship that trauma and addiction share.

There is nothing easy about overcoming trauma or addiction. Finding the right recovery plan for you to address them in tandem is essential. At Buena Vista Recovery, we understand the unique and difficult challenges that trauma and addiction create. Our caring, trauma-informed professionals are prepared to help create an effective plan for your recovery. We embrace your personal needs and goals to create the most effective practices, all backed by our community of peers and medical and spiritual support to create a truly transformative experience in recovery. From detox and residential care to our intensive outpatient programs and ongoing support, we are committed to your recovery through each step of your journey. Call us today at (480) 741-9414.