Trauma and Substance Abuse
Some people increase their use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to cope with how they are feeling after experiencing trauma. This is often called ‘self-medication.’ While this often gives some short-term relief, unfortunately, in the long run it can make things worse. Alcohol, tobacco and other drug use can interfere with the brain’s natural processing of the trauma and substance abuse patterns can then take root.
People often say that when they reduce or stop drinking, smoking or using, their trauma reactions become more frequent or intense. This is the body‘s way of saying that the trauma is unfinished business that needs to be dealt with. Some people find that they develop alcohol, tobacco or other drug problems because they need to drink or use greater amounts more frequently to keep the trauma reactions at bay. This can lead to a cycle where reactions to trauma and alcohol, tobacco or other drug use feed off each other.
Trauma is an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury or threat to one’s physical safety. Trauma also refers to directly experienced, witnessed or learned about events. So, even if the traumatic event didn’t happen to you, if you heard about a traumatic event that affected someone else, especially someone close to you, you could still feel traumatized.
Traumatic Events Experienced Directly
• Military combat
• Natural or manmade disaster
• Being kidnapped
• Being taken hostage
• Terrorist attack
• Concentration camp internee
• Severe auto accidents
• Violent personal assault such as sexual or physical (i.e. mugging), or psychological (i.e. robbery)
• Life threatening illness
• Prisoner of War
Traumatic Events Witnessed
• Violent assault
• Unexpected witnessing a dead body or remains
Traumatic Events Experienced or Learned About (Family Member or Close Friend)
• Violent personal assault
• Serious accident
• Serious injury experienced
• Sudden, unexpected death
• Your child has a life-threatening disease
Trauma and Substance Abuse: Why It Is Counter-Productive to Self-Medicate
Using drugs to deal with trauma only provides temporary relief, if any at all; and in fact makes things worse. Rather than calming nerves, alcohol and other drugs can actually increase both anxiety and fears, intensify and exaggerate emotions and long term use can even cause emotional stagnation. Substance abuse to treat trauma often blocks necessary psychological processing and can prevent or delay the natural completion of the grieving process. Drug use often results in a lower functioning capacity resulting in poor choices and poor decisions and even behavioral dysfunction. Substance abuse can disrupt sleep, especially stage four (or deep sleep), and it can increase nightmares and make them more vivid and believable, leading to an even more fragile mental state.
Trauma and Substance Abuse Treatment
The fact that there is a connection between trauma and substance abuse has been known for decades by professionals treating people who experience both trauma and substance abuse.
Clinical studies of patients in substance abuse treatment programs have shown a high correlation with a client history of trauma. Model programs are being developed that seek to treat these both trauma and substance abuse in an integrated fashion.