Maybe Your Addiction Isn’t Due to Trauma
We’ve all probably heard that trauma can lead to addiction, and for some people, this is true. On the other hand, there are other factors that can increase the risk of developing an addiction, and trauma isn’t always the root cause. If you’re living with an addiction and feel that trauma isn’t the cause, you could be right, even if mental health experts have tried to convince you otherwise.
The Link Between Trauma and Addiction
While trauma isn’t the cause of every case of addiction, there is no denying that trauma and addiction can go hand-in-hand. One study that compared individuals with addictions to those without found that 36.6% of those with addictions met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whereas only 10.2 % of individuals without addictions met PTSD diagnostic criteria. A second study found that individuals with PTSD are likely to use drugs including depressants, hallucinogens, and opioids to cope with PTSD symptoms.
These results aren’t surprising, given the fact that experiencing a traumatic event is associated with symptoms like flashbacks, distressing memories, hypervigilance, and attempts to avoid thoughts or memories linked to the event. Substances can serve as a way for individuals with a trauma history to block out negative memories of trauma, or to cope with the distress that comes along with PTSD symptoms. People may also abuse substances to cope with the pain of traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse or child abuse. The problem with this method of coping is that the relief is only temporary. As soon as the effects of drugs wear off, intrusive thoughts and painful emotions return, making it necessary to consume more drugs to once again block unwanted thoughts and emotions. Over time, as drugs are used to numb the brain, an addiction can develop.
But it Might Not Be Trauma
While trauma is more common among people with addictions when compared to those without, this does not by any means indicate that trauma is the sole cause of addiction. Despite the fact that there can be other explanations for addiction, some therapists may view all clients through the lens of trauma, and look for a trauma history where none exists. This phenomenon is referred to as confirmation bias; the therapist holds the belief that clients with addictions must have trauma, so they search for evidence of a trauma history.
Most therapists who attempt to identify a trauma history have good intentions —they simply want to arrive at the root cause of a client’s addiction to assist with treatment planning. However, focusing solely on trauma could mean that some therapists miss the mark. If you’re seeking addiction treatment but feel that something other than trauma is underlying your addiction, it’s important to speak up and share your story, so your treatment team can correctly address the contributing factors to your addiction.
Other Explanations for Addiction
Beyond trauma and PTSD, other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, may be among the root causes of an addiction. Many substances create feelings of euphoria when abused, which can mask feelings of sadness or distress that come along with mental illness. The overlap between addiction and mental health conditions is high; in fact, a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that about half of people with an addiction also have a mental illness. This means that a number of mental illnesses, and not just trauma, can be linked to addiction.
In some cases, genetic factors can also lead to addiction. For instance, people with a genetic propensity for addiction may experience a more intense high with drugs, leading them to continue to abuse substances to seek the same pleasurable feeling. People with mental illnesses may also find the effects of drugs to be more intensely pleasurable, placing them at risk of addiction.
Finally, some people may turn to drugs because of a lack of purpose or meaningful relationships. Drugs may provide a distraction from feelings of dissatisfaction or loneliness. Being part of a drug-using crowd can also fill the void from missing social connections.
As is the case with trauma, using drugs to cope with mental health symptoms, relationship problems, or difficulty with finding a life purpose only provides temporary relief. Being intoxicated can mask symptoms of mental illness for a brief period, or bring a false sense of purpose to a person’s life, but once the high fades away, the original problems still remain.
Regardless of whether addiction is from trauma, another mental health condition, or issues with relationships, it is important to seek treatment. While addiction may temporarily mask symptoms of trauma or help you to cope with relationship problems or feelings of sadness, over time, substance abuse tends to make life’s problems even worse. If you’re struggling to find your purpose in life, for example, drugs will draw you further away from finding your calling, as much of your time and energy will be put toward using substances and recovering from their effects. Furthermore, if you’re using drugs to cope with trauma or mental illness, you’re likely to find that your mental distress worsens with addiction.
It’s important to find quality treatment that helps you to address the underlying causes of addiction and learn ways to cope without turning to substances. For men in the Los Angeles area, Ethos Recovery offers sober living and recovery mentoring to help you overcome your addiction. If you want to learn more about how Ethos Recovery can help you or a loved one, give us a call today.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.