Understanding the Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction


Understanding the Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction

Your teen may have unresolved trauma from as far back as their childhood, whether you knew about their experiences or not. Unresolved trauma can not only become “stuck” and develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but also lead to substance use and abuse as adolescents try to escape their pain or self-medicate. Trauma and addiction have a very painful and complex relationship.

The Pain Your Child Is Carrying Around

Whether or not you know about trauma that your child may have experienced at any point in their lifetime, their brains and bodies are likely aware of it around the clock. Sometimes they are not even consciously aware of the actual events; they do not remember, but the pain is always there. When something traumatic occurs to a child, it can be very painful.

Unfortunately, many children do not tell their parents about some traumatic events, such as being bullied or sexually assaulted. Trauma like these experiences often carries a lot of shame and guilt. Children and adolescents often do not understand that they are not at fault for being victimized or perhaps they do not want to appear weak. Keeping this pain hidden inside can make their burden even more difficult to bear.

When Trauma Gets Stuck

When your child does not know what to do with their pain, they could end up carrying it around with them indefinitely. This is what is sometimes referred to as trauma getting “stuck.” The painful emotions surrounding their traumatic experiences remain unprocessed, and just like a splinter embedded beneath the skin, can get more painful with time as the emotions try to come to the surface.

Why Some Trauma Becomes PTSD

Sometimes, trauma that is not addressed or remains stuck becomes PTSD. Some trauma can be like a wound that never heals if it is not identified and resolved, and that is exactly what PTSD is.

PTSD can be very debilitating and interfere with daily life. Your teen may relive their traumatic experiences over and over in their head, triggered by almost anything remotely related to their experience; the experience can be simply re-lived without warning. Other symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Re-experiencing – flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts
  • Avoidance – avoiding places, events, objects, thoughts, or feelings related to the event in any way
  • Arousal and reactivity – tense, easily startled, difficulty sleeping, prone to angry outbursts
  • Cognition and mood – loss of memory surrounding traumatic events, self-blame or guilt, negative thoughts about self, loss of interest in preferred activities

Why Is Addiction So Commonly Correlated With Trauma?

Is it any wonder that with symptoms of long-term trauma or PTSD, an adolescent would want to find a way to try to escape the pain? Too often, those who have experienced some form of trauma look to substances to escape or self-medicate.

In fact, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, adolescents who had been victims of sexual assault were three to five times more likely than their peers to develop an addiction at some point in their lifetime. That is only one form of trauma, yet it is highly correlated with substance abuse.

Can Trauma and Addiction Be Treated?

The good news is that both trauma and addiction are treatable. In fact, they can and should be treated simultaneously. When your child receives treatment for addiction but does not address their trauma, they are almost guaranteed to relapse. As trauma is so often the reason that teens begin using substances, it is crucial that your teen addresses trauma when they are also addressing their substance abuse.

How Are Trauma and PTSD Treated?

The most effective ways to treat trauma and PTSD are through therapy. Some of the most effective evidence-based therapeutic modalities, or types of therapy, are:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a form of talk therapy that allows teens to address the relationship between their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, and in particular, to learn to remove negative thinking.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – talk therapy that focuses simultaneously on acceptance and change, teaching important skills in four main areas.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – using a physical distraction to allow the brain to reprocess traumatic memories to allow the teen to feel a sense of safety again surrounding these events.

As your teen engages in their substance treatment program, they will receive both group and individual therapy, and trauma will be addressed to help them heal. Following treatment, many adolescents find success in continued therapy to reinforce their healing and help them move forward from trauma and substance abuse or mental health diagnoses. The most important point to remember is that trauma and addiction need to be treated together to find success.

The relationship between trauma and substance abuse is painful and all too common. However, even when trauma gets stuck or becomes PTSD and your teen attempts to self-medicate with substances, there is treatment for both trauma and addiction.  Sustain Recovery is very aware of how many adolescents come to our program who have experienced traumatic events, and we use trauma-informed practices to help each teen feel safe as they are in treatment. We believe in an individualized approach to reach each teen at their level and according to their needs. Our extended residential program offers the unique opportunity to allow for more healing than traditional treatment programs and a chance for teens to transition back home in healthy ways. We do not judge or blame or shame; we work to understand where the behaviors come from and why they are there. Contact us today at (949) 407-9052 to learn more about our adolescent substance abuse treatment program.