For some victims of trauma, however, the process is not as smooth, and their experiences lead them down a dark road of substance abuse and drug dependency. The relationship between the various forms of trauma and addiction is a complicated one, and what happens in a person’s formative years can have a lasting impact on how they live their life decades later.
What Is Trauma?“Trauma” is a word that is used – and perhaps overused – very flippantly, but what does it actually mean? The American Psychological Association explains that trauma is an emotional response to an event that makes a person genuinely scared for their life or their well-being. In the short term, trauma manifests as shock, mental disorientation, or denial that something bad happened. In the long term, trauma can result in an inability to concentrate on day-to-day activities, nightmares, unbidden and intrusive recollections of the event, difficulty in maintaining social and professional obligations, or depression and substance abuse. Collectively, these are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychology Today goes on to explain that the concept of “personal vulnerability” is key when understanding how trauma affects people. Someone doesn’t have to be involved in a car accident in order to feel traumatized by the event; if they perceive that the accident made them feel personally vulnerable – perhaps by virtue of their physical proximity to the accident, or if they were supposed to have been in one of the vehicles, but weren’t – then they can be as traumatized by the event as someone who was actively involved in the accident. A soldier who sees his colleagues killed or injured – while remaining physically unharmed himself – will be at risk for suffering the nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance behaviors and chronic stress and depression of post-traumatic stress disorder.
ConclusionSummarizing the University of Texas study, TIME magazine posited that “addiction susceptibility may be linked to an inability to regulate emotions” – that is, the trauma may rob a victim of the ability to deal with the trauma in a healthy and positive way, making them instead feel depressed, isolated, and fearful, and priming them for a substance abuse problem that may rise to the surface decades after the last traumatic experience.
Abuse and Addiction
- The general population has physical abuse rates of 8.4 percent; for alcoholic men, this rate is 24 percent, and for alcoholic women, it is 33 percent.
- The general population has sexual abuse rates of six percent; for alcoholic men, this rate is 12 percent, and for alcoholic women, it is 49 percent.
If the parents of these children do not recognize the signs of severe bullying to the point where it becomes traumatic, the untreated depression that such behavior can foster could likely lead to a substance abuse problem – one that can manifest even decades later.
19 Times More LikelyOne example of this comes from recent history. The September 11th attacks left an indelible mark on the American psyche, and children were among the most potently affected groups of people. One study conducted on children who had witnessed the attacks (and reported in the journal Disasters), lost a loved one in the attacks, or had to evacuated from the general ground zero area of the attacks found that teens with one of these factors were five times more likely to increase their intake of drugs and alcohol. Teens who had experienced three or more of the factors were 19 times more likely to increase their intake of drugs and alcohol. Simply put, the more trauma these children and teens experienced, the more likely they were to abuse controlled substances. Furthermore, not only did these teens abuse drugs and alcohol, their substance abuse also negatively affected their schoolwork, their social behavior, and their grades – criteria that a study in the journal Addiction identified as the threshold between drug abuse and drug addiction.
The ACE StudyOne of the watersheds of research involving childhood trauma and addiction is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. The two-year-long study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization and the Centers for Disease Control surveyed 17,337 patients and found correlations between extreme stress in childhood and various forms of addiction and other social impairments later in life. The criteria for the childhood trauma were:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Domestic violence
- Substance abuse in the house
- Mental illness in the house
- Parental divorce
- Incarcerated member of the household