How Unresolved Trauma Can Breed Addiction

Trauma is a six-letter word that affects an individual emotionally, mentally, and physically for a long period of time and sometimes a lifetime. Trauma comes in all forms and can occur throughout any life stage. Whether the individual has been emotionally, physically, sexually, verbally, or psychologically neglected, abused, or traumatized, it is nearly inevitable that they will begin to practice self-destructive behaviors. Self-destructive behaviors, whether conscious or subconscious, are ways to cope, numb, self-soothe, re-enact pain, ask for help, or attempt to reclaim a sense of power and control over one’s body. When trauma survivors do not have words for their experiences or have spent their life being told their voices are unimportant or ever learned healthy self-soothing behaviors, their experience for coping and healing after a traumatic event is drastically limited.

Self-destructive behaviors and trauma

Unfortunately, the mental health and addiction field tends to pathologize self-destructive behaviors and the individuals who engage in them. This results in trauma victims hiding their self-destructive behaviors out of shame instead of seeking help. This can eventually lead to two separate but relatable issues: the lingering trauma and the self-destructive behaviors.

Unresolved trauma breeds addiction

Alcohol and drug misuse can release pulses of dopamine, which trigger the brain into a state of euphoria, making the person feel good. Over time this can be addicting and misleading as this surge in dopamine is only temporary and will act as a Band-Aid to cover up the negative feelings associated with the past trauma. Individuals who engage in alcohol and drugs after a traumatic event are more likely to develop an addiction than those who refrain from using alcohol and drugs as a crutch. Adults who suffered childhood trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their memories and emotions. A mother may turn to Xanax to calm her nerves after going through a violent attack. Too often, we use pills, alcohol, heroin, and other drugs to block out past memories and numb our emotional pain as a way to forget and escape our past traumas. Trauma can therefore lead to addiction, especially if the individual does not come to terms or seek help for their trauma.

Addiction as a self-destructive behavior

Addiction in itself is a self-destructive behavior that can lead to poor decisions and outcomes. Incarceration, financial instability, abusive relationships, and sexual trauma are known outcomes of addiction, whether it is addiction to drugs or addiction to alcohol. Oftentimes, individuals who struggle with addiction will hide their traumas because they do not want to face reality or feel they have no way out of their addiction. This may hold true for a woman who is using heroin and is repeatedly raped or beaten by her partner who is also using drugs, or a young male who is incarcerated for selling drugs and goes through mental and physical trauma while in prison. It is not uncommon for individuals who are in the deepest throes of their addiction to experience relentless cycles of trauma and perceive it as normal. Addiction clouds reality, perception, and judgment, and it is usually not until the individual enters treatment that they discover they went through years of underlying trauma. Recognizing and understanding this trauma can be one of the most difficult parts of addiction recovery.

Seeking help for self-destructive behaviors

Individuals who have undergone a traumatic experience and thereafter develop self-destructive behaviors may be in denial of their emotions and actions. It may take a friend or loved one to reach out and have a tough conversation about these self-destructive behaviors. Seeking professional help for the traumatic event is not only necessary to overcome the trauma but also necessary to treat the underlying self-destructive behaviors, which could turn into a disorder of their own.

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