Have you ever experienced some form of discomfort or stress in your daily life and immediately began searching for a way to make it better or lessen the stress of the experience? Perhaps you had a hostile meeting with your boss and chose to leave work to treat yourself to a coffee; maybe you received bad news and helped yourself feel better with some retail therapy.
An experience of trauma impacts the brain similarly, but often on a much larger scale — when a traumatic experience occurs, the brain often seeks to handle the effects through a coping mechanism as a defense against the onslaught of negative, overwhelming emotions. For this reason, it is not uncommon for an addiction to develop as a result of a traumatic event.
What is trauma?
Trauma is a deeply distressing experience with long-lasting mental and emotional impacts. Traumatic experiences include:
- The sudden loss of a loved one
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Domestic violence
- Extreme acts of violence, including warfare and terrorism
- Natural disasters
- Car crashes
The effects of trauma often challenge your perception of your place in the world, possibly leaving you with lasting emotions of terror, powerlessness and confusion. A deep sense of loss typically accompanies these feelings.
For some, these feelings are temporary and diminish as time passes, or as they are addressed and dealt with. But for others, a traumatic event can result in post-traumatic stress disorder with symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety and difficulty sleeping.
How trauma affects the brain
Trauma affects the brain in the following ways:
- The amygdala, your brain’s alarm system for when threats are detected, can become hyperactive due to trauma. Your brain then constantly engages in scanning for and assessing threats. The result is that you’ll feel constantly anxious, vulnerable and fearful.
- The hippocampus — the part of the brain that processes your memories — can change. Instead of depositing memories in the outer layer of the brain for long-term storage, memories become stuck in a “here and now” loop. As a result, you’ll experience intrusive and disturbing memories over and over.
- The cortex, or the part of your brain responsible for accomplishing tasks, is overridden by deeper instincts of survival that come from within your inner brain. Survival instincts can overrule logic, decrease your thinking processes and diminish your ability to control your behavior.
In other words, traumatic stress can leave you in a state of perpetual flight or fight. When you’re experiencing flashbacks and feeling like you need to constantly be on alert, i.e. are living in a never-ending state of stress, your brain instinctively begins to look for ways in which to alleviate those emotions.
Unresolved trauma and addiction
Numerous research has discovered an undeniable link between trauma and addiction.
For example, one of the original studies of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) discovered that adults who experienced four or more traumatic incidences (in this study identified as abuse, neglect, losing a parent, domestic violence or living with a family member with a mental illness) in their childhood were three times more likely to develop an addiction as an adult.
Another study of adolescents in substance abuse treatment showed that 70 percent had a history of some form of trauma or displayed symptoms of PTSD. Similarly, 75 percent of adults in addiction treatment reported histories of trauma and/or abuse.
This being said, not everyone who experiences trauma is guaranteed to develop an addiction to substances; there have been many instances when multiple people have experienced the same moment of trauma and only some have developed long-lasting symptoms of PTSD. However, it’s important to note the connection between addiction and post-traumatic stress in order to properly address and heal all levels of emotional and mental distress in addiction treatment.
Trauma and addiction treatment
While post-traumatic stress disorder is not something you can ever fully extinguish from your life, it is possible to recover from a co-occurring substance use disorder and learn how to properly cope with symptoms of trauma. A successful treatment plan will address both trauma and addiction at the same time. If only one condition is treated and the other is left untreated, the likelihood of relapse is extremely high.
Many treatment centers, including Silvermist Recovery, now offer trauma-informed care, a unique form of treatment designed to address mental health concerns with the understanding of the way in which trauma impacts the brain. By addressing both trauma, and any co-occurring disorders, recovery will not only be possible but long-lasting.
To get in touch today with someone about trauma-informed care and addiction treatment, contact Silvermist Recovery online, or by calling 724-268-4858 anytime to learn more.