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Trauma and Addiction: Key to Recovery from Substance Abuse

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trauma-addiction-pillWhat comes to mind when you hear the word trauma? Chances are, your mind supplies violent, frightening images: a car wreck, perhaps, or bombs dropping in wartime. But did you know that trauma isn’t defined by a catastrophic event, but by an individual’s reaction to that event?

Trauma Definition

While the medical definition of traumatic injury does involve bodily harm, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”

Thus it’s the emotional response that defines trauma, rather than the physical occurrence.

Sudden loss of a family member can be traumatic, but so can something like verbal abuse. It’s all about the meaning you take from the incident. If you interpret ongoing verbal abuse to mean that you’re worthless and unlovable, the result is a significant psychological trauma.

Very often trauma is the catalyst for substance abuse and addiction.

Addiction is a compulsive drive to use one’s drug of choice, be it alcohol, drugs, sex, or food. One hallmark of addiction is a sense of dependency and loss of personal control.

How Trauma And Addiction Are Linked

Remember that trauma occurs based on how we process events, so it doesn’t always look the way we think it should. Trauma can come from a major disaster, but it can also come from a series of put-downs, threats, or rejections.

Regardless of people’s life circumstances, everyone has their own unique traumatic experiences. Whether people realize it or not, addiction is almost always rooted in unresolved mental and emotional issues … and that includes past traumas.

Furthermore, trauma forms the foundation for many mental health concerns.

When a person has an addiction along with a mental health diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or Bipolar Disorder, that’s called Dual Diagnosis.

Since most addictive behaviors arise from these types of mental and emotional issues, obtaining effective dual diagnosis treatment is key to lasting recovery.

What If There’s No Clear Traumatic Event?

Some people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse don’t understand the motivations behind their addictive behaviors. They come to rehab and say, "I don't know why I do what I do. I mean, I’ve had a pretty good life, and a relatively happy childhood. There was no physical abuse or anything, so why did I end up addicted to drugs?”

If a person doesn’t have a “good reason” for their addiction, they may carry around an extra sense of shame.

As bestselling author and recovering alcoholic Glennon Doyle Melton writes on Momastery, “I had a relatively magical childhood, which added an extra layer of guilt to my pain and confusion. Glennon – why are you all jacked up when you have no excuse to be all jacked up?”

When people are “all jacked up” for no apparent reason, it’s because they have experienced trauma and are attempting to cope with it.

One doesn't have to have had a so-called “bad” childhood to hold trauma within.

Even People With “Great Lives” Have Trauma

A traumatic event is one that is shocking to you personally. It’s something that shakes your sense of safety and emotional stability in the world.

As HelpGuide.org’s article Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Symptoms, Treatment, and Recovery states:

“ … Any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic …. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.”

So while physical abuse can certainly be traumatic, so can being locked in a closet by a sibling or a neglectful babysitter.

Experiences that involve elements of powerlessness and loss of personal agency are prime candidates for trauma.

Since every person is different, the ways in which events register within each individual psyche varies.

For example, one person who is ostracized by his peers may take it in stride, shake it off, and find a new friend group.

Another person rejected by his core group of friends may register that event as traumatic and feel deeply scarred by it.

The first person may not remember that rejection a few years later, while the second is still working to overcome it.

Healing From Trauma And Addiction

Healing trauma and addiction comes when a person learns to change how they hold traumatic events in their consciousness.

If they hold these events as entirely bad and wrong, as something that should not have happened, then they stay stuck.

But if they are able to look deeply into the reality of their lives and see how positive purposes sprang from even the most terrible circumstances, they are empowered to move forward and let go of addictive behaviors.  

Burying and pushing aside emotional trauma delays healing, but acknowledging the pain and offering yourself love speeds recovery.

The Clearing co-founder Joe Koelzer adds:

“When I'm able to say of my traumatic experience, ‘this is the positive purpose behind me having this experience, this is what I've learned, this is how I grew from it,’ then I change how I'm holding that former traumatic event in my consciousness. Now it's just an event, instead of a traumatic event.”

Past traumas lose their power over us once we decide to hold them differently. We have the ability to transform our traumas by changing the stories we tell ourselves about them. At The Clearing, we partner with Participants in this powerful recovery process.

If you think that you or someone you love has an addiction problem, it’s vital to seek out supports and begin the healing process. That said, be discerning in your choice of treatment. Selecting the right recovery program at the start can save you money, time, and lots of heartache.

Next Steps

If you’re clear on the reality of a dual diagnosis, but uncertain as to how to begin finding appropriate treatment, we have a resource to help. Our post Four Key Questions to Ask When Selecting a Dual Diagnosis Treatment Center will empower you know what to look for as you search.

As you move through the next steps of your journey, know that you are not alone in addiction. Effective treatment is available for you and your family, and you can emerge from this experience with greater insight, wisdom, and compassion.

For continued reading on Dual Diagnosis, download our free eBook:

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Caroline McGraw

This post was written by Caroline McGraw

In addition to her work as "the voice of The Clearing", Caroline Garnet McGraw writes about getting past perfect and rising up real at A Wish Come Clear. Visit and receive a free copy of Getting Real & Letting Go: A Collection of Quotes for Recovering Perfectionists.

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