How Trauma Can Lead to Substance Use Disorder

How Trauma Can Lead to Substance Use Disorder

According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. During these moments of intensity, the body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals can be beneficial when experiencing an emergency, as they activate the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response evolved from a need to protect ourselves from encounters with life-threatening predators or enemies. However, when there isn’t a resolution to these moments of trauma or repeated trauma, it can dysregulate the stress response system resulting in hyperarousal, anxiety, and dissociation. For those with trauma histories, drugs of abuse can offer a reprieve from the prolonged activation of the stress response system, albeit an ultimately harmful one.

The connection between substance use disorders (SUD) and co-occurring mental health disorders is well documented. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.” Our experience at Parkdale Center finds co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders to be even more frequent. Keep reading to learn more about the science behind this connection, and how our dual-diagnosis treatments support both short and long-term well-being.

Adverse Childhood Exposures and Substance Use Disorder

Trauma can have a life-long effect on a person’s emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing. The prolific ACE Study tracked Adverse Childhood Exposures which included abuse (psychological, physical, sexual) and household dysfunction (exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, violent treatment of mother or stepmother, and criminal behavior). It found that exposure to traumatic events at a young age leads to impairments in brain development, as well as delayed emotional and social development. In addition, one of its many groundbreaking conclusions was that,

“high levels of exposure to adverse childhood experiences would expectedly produce anxiety, anger, and depression in children. To the degree that behaviors such as smoking, alcohol, or drug use are found to be effective as coping devices, they would tend to be used chronically.”

What this study ultimately taught the mental health community was that without adequate support to help children and youth overcome traumatic experiences, they become more likely to suffer multiple health risk factors in their adult life. These health risks include alcoholism, substance use disorder, depression, suicide, ischemic heart disease and cancer, among others.

Trauma: An Occupational Hazard

For those who experienced a relatively safe childhood, trauma may still find them later in life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that those who work in certain occupations are at a higher risk of experiencing traumatic events, including those in the military, firefighters, police, journalists, healthcare workers and EMS and ambulance workers. Routinely exposed to events involving severe injury, loss of life, and often providing emotional support to traumatized survivors, they are at risk for secondary or vicarious traumatization. First responders are especially at risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Dual Diagnosis: Treating Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders and Substance Use Disorder

The most common mental health conditions co-occurring with substance use disorder are trauma, anxiety, PTSD, and depression, but all mental health disorders can co-exist with SUD. At Parkdale Center, we provide evidence-based substance use disorder treatment, which requires an evaluation by both a medical doctor as well as a doctoral-level psychiatric practitioner. But this isn’t just a questionnaire. Several diagnostic tools are used to identify individual mental health struggles. They include an evaluation of the patient’s medications and nutrition supplements, sleeping patterns, lifestyle, diet, activity levels, and more. This gives our clinical team a more complete picture of our patient’s physical and mental health.

Recovery is Possible

Trauma and substance use disorder is a complex relationship. Treating both disorders with a trauma-informed clinical staff improves the chances for long-term recovery. If you would like to learn more about dual diagnosis treatment of substance use disorder, please reach out today. We’re here to help.

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