Trauma And Addiction

As indicated by today’s blog title, trauma and addiction are intimately related. It might seem obvious that some forms of trauma like living in a war zone could lead to substance abuse. However, experiences like car accidents or being bullied can also have serious psychological effects that could lead to substance abuse. These examples delve into the distinction of big T trauma and little T trauma, but I am getting a little ahead of myself. For now, let’s stick with why you should care about trauma and how it impacts people’s behaviors.

What Do The Statistics Say?

Over the last two decades, there have been significant research findings to suggest a strong correlation between trauma and addiction. According to a 2010 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, more than 70% of adolescents receiving treatment for substance use disorders have experienced some form of trauma. This study concluded that there is an incredibly high comorbidity between post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurring throughout adolescence and adulthood and subsequent substance use disorders. Traumatic experiences work by creating new neural pathways throughout the brain that connect to the neurological areas responsible for memories (hippocampus), emotions and thoughtful processing (frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, respectively).

How Does Trauma Effect The Brain?

Traumatic events activate the parasympathetic nervous system and trigger a “fight or flight” response, resulting in increased cortisol and adrenaline throughout the brain. In small doses, this autonomic response can be very helpful for survival. Unfortunately, after prolonged activation, it can be extremely harmful and lead to severe PTSD as well as other mental health disorders.

Moreover, those who experience trauma often struggle with reliving their past experiences. This effect strengthens neural pathways associated with the traumatic event(s), which makes it more difficult to reverse over time. Fortunately, it’s not all bad news for those with trauma. The brain has something called neuroplasticity. In layman’s terms, this means that neurological pathways, like those associated with trauma, can change over time. Through various forms of therapy, like EMDR, individuals who experience trauma can slowly begin to heal. Over the years, professionals in the medical world have begun to explore and categorize types of trauma. Below are the two main categories of trauma that you will learn about when you explore the field of recovery. 

Big T Trauma Vs. Little T Trauma

The first type of trauma is called big T trauma and it’s what most people think of when they think of traumatic events. Like all types of trauma, big T can cause severe mental health problems and subsequent substance use disorders. Some examples of big T trauma include but are not limited to:

  • Domestic violence
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Surviving a severe accident (i.e. car, fire, etc…)
  • Sexual abuse or assault
  • Physical abuse or assault
  • Verbal, mental and or emotional abuse
  • Military service or other combat situations
  • Childhood neglect or abuse

On the other hand, little t trauma is much more subtle and tends to build up over time causing a diagnosis of PTSD because one is constantly experiencing new trauma. Some of the most prevalent example of little t are:

  • Physical and or social isolation
  • Growing up in an environment where your emotions are suppressed 
  • Chronic illness
  • Living in poverty or extremely poor conditions
  • Bullying or shaming by caregivers, peers and or teachers 

Additionally, for people who are unable to address past trauma, they are more likely to form maladaptive behaviors. Some examples include, uncontrolled emotional regulation, eating disorders and illicit substances to help cope with difficult emotions. Drug and alcohol addiction provide individuals with a means to disrupt their thoughts and difficult emotions and troubling memories, which make it a prevalent solution to help those who struggle with trauma. Fortunately, Ascent Clinical Services has experience treating people with trauma and other mental health disorders in the greater Denver area.

If you or a loved one has a history of trauma and would like to seek professional help, please contact us today.