What Is the Connection Between Trauma, Self-Medicating, and Addiction?

November 28, 2022

Written By: Samantha Perry, LCSW

The word trauma is used a lot, but what does it mean regarding mental health, self-medicating, and addiction? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, trauma is an emotional response to an event like an accident, assault, or natural disaster. However, it also includes experiencing combat, violence, abuse, or seeing something like that happen to another person. Emotional abuse, such as bullying, can also cause trauma. Sometimes individuals use substances to cope with symptoms related to their trauma. Over time, this could lead to substance use disorder (SUD). 

Trauma and Addiction 

About 70% of the population has experienced trauma in their life. Just over 30% have experienced four or more trauma situations, but even the experts have difficulty defining it fully. It’s something that shocks you, frightens you, threatens you, violates you, gives you mental distress, and is usually pushed into your subconscious because it’s hard to deal with. People who experience trauma have a higher rate of developing a substance use disorder (SUD). 

What Does Self-Medicating Mean?

Trauma can affect your life and functionality in everyday things. When you need to ease the impact, you will search for something to help you deal with it. Self-medicating is a way to alleviate symptoms related to trauma by using substances. While substances can temporarily relieve the impact of trauma, over time, you can become addicted.

Tolerance Grows

Self-medicating is a slippery slope. Using a substance one time may seem to alleviate the symptoms for a short time. As you continue this pattern, your tolerance grows, and you need it more often to get the same relief. Eventually, you need the substance to keep functioning because nothing is dealing with the root of the feelings, the trauma. It pushes it down from the conscious mind and gives you the illusion of feeling better, but it makes you feel worse. Once the effect of the substance subsides, the trauma can return stronger. This cycle keeps going on and on and becomes ingrained in your daily rituals. 

Develops Substance Cravings 

At first, using a substance may seem like a good idea. For a brief time, it seems to help you escape the stress, depression, and anxiety caused by trauma. Then, as time goes on, needing the substances more and more become the center of your life. Everything is about the substances and getting them, using them, and finding them again. Other things that were very important to you begin to be less important—only the substances matter. Everything else is secondary to that craving. 

Finding a Diagnosis

Since a little more than 30% of people have experienced four or more traumatic events in their life, it may be hard to diagnose the root cause. Traumas can layer together. In therapy, you can peel off the layers and figure out which one is the culprit. Once you understand what is causing it, you can address it and take away the strength and control it has over you. 

When your therapy helps you see the complex structure of your SUD, you will see how to recover from it. Traumas don’t go away. You need to address it and go forward through it. Only when you have focused on alleviating the symptoms from the traumas will you be able to address the SUD. Once you have a full understanding of therapy, then you begin your recovery.

Therapy can be hard to go through, and much of the pain and fear caused by your trauma will revisit you again. Your therapist will help you overcome these things. Some days you will just want to quit because it hurts so much. You must do it; otherwise, you’ll begin the circle again. The next time though, it will be even harder than the time before. Traumas and SUD can create a pattern of thinking that becomes ingrained within your mind. You will just want that escape, to be numb to the devastation in your life.

SUD caused by trauma is a cry for help. What is similar in almost all SUD is denial. It’s hard to see until things go really bad in your life. You can lose almost everything, and still, the SUD will control you because the SUD seems to protect you from the trauma. It doesn’t. In fact, it adds to the problem and keeps you from finding help to recover from all of it. Therapy is needed to find the strength and support to take your life back and find the path to full recovery. It’s all about you. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), caused by trauma or not, you should seek help. Feeling drowned by the effects of trauma is only worsened by substance use. You can find help. Here at Buena Vista Recovery, we work with you to treat your addiction from the root cause. With a number of treatment modalities, like individual therapy, group therapy, and trauma therapy, we can help you recover. 

Dealing with trauma and SUD at the same time is challenging, but you aren’t alone. From detox through treatment and beyond, we’ll be side by side with you on this journey giving guidance and support for the battle ahead of you. Call us at (480) 741-9414 to get started on your treatment journey with us today. We want to help you heal from your trauma and recover so you can enjoy your life.