Substance use disorders, including alcoholism, are means of coping with life for many people. How they come to use drugs or drink alcohol depends on their life, background, history, a family of origin, and many other factors. Some simply start using drugs to keep the pain away or may have tried it at a party once and they got hooked soon after. Everyone has a different story of how they ended up using substances, but one closely associated link to the use of drugs and alcohol is past trauma. Childhood trauma, in particular, is a driver for substance use later in life. Learn more about what it means to provide trauma-informed care so people who experience this can find hope and healing.
How Trauma Works
Trauma is any event in a person’s life that has a lasting impact. This may come from physical, sexual, verbal, or other abuse a person endures for a long period of time. A person may also experience a one-time act of violence or trauma that sticks with them the rest of their lives and causes mental health issues. The role of trauma in people’s lives should not be understated, as well as their struggles with substances. The role of trauma in people’s lives should not be understated, as well as their struggles with substances. To deal with the after-effects of trauma, a person should see trauma-informed care that specifically focuses on their needs. This might also include any mental health issues that arise.
Addictive Behavior and Trauma
Any traumatic event can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. People are not meant to experience trauma, but it happens to many. To cope with it, there may be healing pathways, but there are also other ways people deal, including substance use. Addictive behavior comes from a place of wanting to numb or assuage the painful memories and feelings. Over time, the feelings of despair and hopelessness become too much and they find themselves struggling with substance use.
PTSD and Trauma
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is one way people deal with the challenges of traumatic experience. The brain cannot process what is happening, nor can the body, and the person is flooded with flashbacks of the event or sequences of events that occurred. Disruptive memories occur, they avoid the feelings, run away from them through substances, and work to block out what is coming up for them. Meanwhile, their loved ones are struggling to help them and understand why they are struggling to this degree. Self-medication is a way to make things stop, for a while, but they don’t go away. Now, there are myriad issues to deal with, rather than the traumatic experiences. This is the place where trauma-informed care comes in to offer support.
Addiction treatment programs offer trauma-informed care for people who struggle with both PTSD and addiction, along with other challenges associated with trauma. There are many programs that work to understand the signs and symptoms of trauma, how to work through those feelings without substance use, and best practices in care. Some key components of trauma-informed care include:
- Creating a safe space for people. People who experience trauma are triggered and relive the events. They struggle to feel safe and secure with others. A safe space allows room for this to take place
- Transparency: before people open to counselors, those with a history of trauma need to trust people providing treatment are open about communicating to create healing
- Peer support: sharing stories, experiences, and more is an effective way to create hope and build trust. Peer-support groups are an excellent way to meet others and avoid isolation, which often happens with PTSD or other challenges associated with trauma recovery.
- Empowerment: giving back the choice to people with traumatic backgrounds is key. It helps them recognize and value their resiliency while they work to heal from their trauma and recover. When given a voice and choice in how to move forward, they are able to move forward in their healing
One of the hardest things to do when surviving traumatic experiences, especially in addiction recovery, is to reserve judgment. This might be a judgment on how long ago the trauma happened (why can’t healing happen faster), why it happened (what was that person’s role in it) and many other ways they feel shamed by the experience. When they are in a safe, non-judgmental space, healing begins. They finally begin to see how they can heal from their past and work towards space where they no longer feel they are going to be judged for their experiences. For those with early childhood trauma, they may not want to share their story or seek treatment at first but they go because loved ones ask them to get help. Trauma-informed care is about seeing and hearing that a loved one needs help and offering them a space to speak and feel what they need to process in order for them to heal. Specialists trained in therapeutic techniques are often able to listen well and be approachable so the person can find some space to get better from their past experiences and work towards healing the root cause of addiction.
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