Vast amounts of scientific research over the years demonstrates a direct correlation between trauma and addiction. There is an undeniable link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and addiction in adults. Trauma and traumatic experiences, no matter when or how they occur, make people stressed, which can create negative coping mechanisms and often lead to substances to relieve the stress or support the negative coping mechanism. Traumatic experiences can also lead to regular depersonalization, dissociation, or numbness, making those individuals more vulnerable and therefore more at risk of substance misuse, addiction, or addictive behaviors. Remember, one of the major reasons that individuals turn to drugs and alcohol, ultimately leading to active addiction or having a substance use disorder, is to relieve immediate and intense psychological pain and discomfort. Trauma, regardless of the time or intensity of the traumatic experience, puts individuals in a place of ongoing psychological pain and discomfort. Drugs and alcohol can offer immediate relief from that pain and discomfort, and for a time, act as relief for the physical and psychological effects of trauma.
When we face things that are terrifying or overwhelming, our brains and bodies prepare for survival through hypo or hyper arousal. We freeze or get ready to fight or flee. Long after the scary event has ended, our nervous system prepares to survive the threat when it comes again—sometimes by convincing us that it never ended. Very often, drugs and alcohol are used to self-medicate an overactive nervous system that resulted from trauma. Drugs, alcohol and other behaviors can provide a false sense that we can tolerate these experiences allowing us to “function” as parents, employees, students etc. Our brain quickly learns “this works!” and concludes that the best way to survive and function is to continue the self-soothing strategy. We could continue on in this way if it weren’t for the tolerance we build to the substance or behavior. We find that we need to do it more and more to achieve the same soothing effects. Before we know it, the solution to soothing the trauma becomes the problem. Suicidal thoughts that helped us numb become suicidal attempts, substances that helped us survive overwhelming experiences become overdoses or alcohol-induced liver failure and eating disorder behavior becomes more life-threatening. The coping mechanisms we have created and our way of “surviving” becomes more dangerous than the original threat.
Anyone suffering or recovering from a severe substance use disorder has experienced trauma. Addiction in itself is a traumatic event, for both the individual suffering from addiction and their family and loved ones that are impacted. As an addict or alcoholic, this can look like losing relationships, jobs, the ability to emotionally and physically regulate, and losing a sense of self. When the addiction causes trauma and the addictive behavior is our way of coping with the trauma, we find ourselves in a truly vicious cycle. In many cases, abstinence results in worsening trauma symptoms initially. This is one reason why early recovery can be so difficult. A false window of tolerance was created by the addictive behavior and when that is removed, we learn that we are not able to tolerate much at all. For many people in early recovery after a period of active addiction, they can both physically and mentally feel like a raw, exposed nerve. This is why treatment in early recovery, especially trauma-informed addiction treatment is so imperative, because it allows the necessary clinical support for an individual to get through that early part of sobriety where they are raw and feel exposed and unsafe, to work towards a place of safety where they are truly able to engage in necessary clinical services and treatment approaches to learn healthy coping skills and overcome both the substance use disorder and trauma.
Creating new neural pathways informing our brains and bodies that we can regulate without returning to the substance or behavior takes time. If we are exposed to corrective experiences frequently enough during that time, our brains will begin to fire differently. An addicted/traumatized brain can learn to recognize the urge to fight, freeze or flee in a triggering situation and notice that it remains safe when it does not react in any of these ways. Over time, the brain will be less likely to respond to triggers by activating “survival mode” and more likely to utilize less destructive tools to regulate.
Here at Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, we understand that the majority of patients coming to rehab have experienced trauma, and that trauma is still impacting them while in treatment and early sobriety. Additionally, we also understand that every patient experiences trauma differently, even if the traumatic event or situation is similar, and that different clinical and therapeutic approaches will be necessary for different patients. Therefore, we have created a safe, healing environment while patients are going through addiction treatment that concurrently addresses and treats their trauma. We are fortunate to be able to do this in a long-term continuum, since trauma treatment is almost impossible to address in a short-term, acute, episodic episode of care. Trauma work takes time.
At MARC, we have taken necessary steps to offer specific, trauma-focused clinical and therapeutic services and groups, while also making sure that all individual, group, and family clinical services are trauma-informed. Some of the specific therapeutic approaches we utilize are Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), brainspotting, psychodrama, experiential therapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS), Gestalt therapy, and Relationship Trauma Repair. We also utilize very small, intimate trauma-specific groups, including our Legacy Group and Experiential Group, that offer patients with trauma a safe space to process. We also have engaged with and incorporating ongoing clinical trainings for our therapists and counselors with trauma treatment experts, to enhance our team’s ability to address trauma for every patient and stay up-to-date with the latest trauma treatment trends and research.
If you or someone you suffers from trauma and addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual-diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (866) 929-4318 or email our team at [email protected]. For more information on all of our drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and co-occurring disorder services and recovery resources, please visit our website at www.marylandaddictionrecovery.com.