According to the US National Library of Medicine, traumatic life experiences are considered a major health problem and occur at an alarmingly high rate. Research has shown that when a person has exposure to traumatic life experiences, they have a higher probability of developing a substance use disorder. This is especially true if the traumatic experiences occurred in childhood.
What Are Traumatic Life Experiences?
Since everyone processes trauma in a different way, the broad definition of it is an emotional, psychological response to an experience or an event that is deeply disturbing and distressing. If the definition is loosely applied, a traumatic experience could be something that is upsetting, such as going through a divorce, having an injury, or losing a loved one. Taken to the other extreme, traumatic experiences could include severely damaging experiences such as rape, domestic violence, child abuse, torture, bullying, or natural disasters.
Because of the wide range of traumatic life experiences, psychologists have developed three categories for the different types of trauma.
- Complex Trauma generally results in the individual experiencing direct harm.
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) generally develops after an individual has been through an ordeal where intense physical harm was threatened or occurred, or they were exposed to an event that was terrifying. Frightening and persistent thoughts and memories of the ordeal keep recurring.
- Developmental Trauma Disorder forms in the early years of a child’s life. This type of trauma interferes with the child’s cognitive, neurological, and psychological development and is the result of neglect, abuse, or abandonment.
The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction
A collaborative study between Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of the largest studies of the connection between trauma and addiction. The study, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE), included more than 17,500 participants and explored the question of why so many people that have substance abuse disorders have histories of traumatic experiences.
The results of the study indicate that trauma has a compounding effect. If four or more traumatic events are experienced by a child, they are:
- 7-10 times more likely to become addicted to drugs
- 5 times more likely to become addicted to alcohol
- 4 times more likely to develop depression
- 12 times more likely to be at risk of suicide
- 60% more likely to be obese
There have been many additional studies that confirm the link between trauma and addiction.
- According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
- 75% of people in treatment for substance abuse report histories of trauma and abuse.
- 97% of women who are homeless and have a mental illness report severe sexual and/or physical abuse.
- 12% to 34% of people in treatment for substance abuse have PTSD.
- Studies by the Veterans Administration show that between 35-75% of veterans with PTSD abuse alcohol or drugs.
- The director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, Dr. Daniel Sumrok, says he has treated 1,200 patients for addiction.
- Approximately 92% of them had ACE scores of 3 or higher.
Possible Forms of Trauma
In the original ACE, ten forms of trauma were included.
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Physical neglect
- Domestic violence
- Incarceration of a parent
- Mental illness of a parent
- Substance abuse/addiction of a parent
- Divorce or separation of parents
Research has since identified additional forms of trauma including:
- Homelessness or living in an unsafe area
- Bullying or constant harassment
- Being an immigrant
- Deportation of a parent
- Seeing violence outside the home
- Placement in foster care
- Experiencing war or living in a war zone
- Repeatedly moving
- Being arrested
- Witnessing a sibling’s abuse
Reasons for the Link Between Addiction and Trauma
There is no simple answer to the reasons why the connection between trauma and addiction exist. The reasons are complex and may include one or more of the following:
- Individuals trying to manage the ways trauma has affected them may use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.
- People suffering from PTSD may find that symptoms such as insomnia, social withdrawal, agitation, hypersensitivity to loud noises or sudden movements, or depression are more easily managed by using drugs.
- The lifestyle of the person addicted to drugs or alcohol puts them in danger more often than someone that does not have a substance use disorder. For example, driving while impaired, being in dangerous neighborhoods, or being in bad company puts them at a higher risk of experiencing trauma through abuse, accidents, violence, or crime.
English Mountain Recovery, located in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, has a professional staff that can guide you along your journey to a healthy, sober life. If you or a loved one have experienced a trauma that has led to substance abuse or addiction, we’re here to help you create a path to recovery.
- US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health: Substance Use, Childhood Traumatic Experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban Civilian Population
- The Center for Treatment of Mood Disorders: What is Trauma?
- US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health: The Behavioral Consequences of Child Abuse
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study