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
Women, Trauma and Food AddictionOf course, children are not the only group of people at risk for their trauma developing into an addiction; and neither are drugs and alcohol the only mechanisms of addiction. Women – who, as a population, are twice more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than men because of a “heightened fear response” – are at the risk of developing a food addiction as a result of their PTSD. Researchers writing in the journal JAMA Psychiatry surveyed 49,000 female nurses, and asked them if they had ever experienced a traumatic event. Almost 18 percent of women, who had six to seven symptoms of PTSD as a result of childhood abuse or a traumatic event, reported that they also experienced symptoms of a food addiction, such as eating when they were not hungry, hiding their eating habits from others, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to cut down on food intake. The researchers concluded that the study results bore out their hypothesis: that there is a tendency to use food as self-medication against traumatic stress symptoms, in the way that other survivors of trauma and abuse use alcohol or drugs to insulate themselves against the feelings of stress or depression that are born from their experiences. Crossing over with the findings of the ACE study, the International Journal of Obesity noted that “abuse in childhood is associated with adult obesity.”
Traumatic Brain Injuries and AddictionTrauma can also be physically violent. Athletes in particularly dangerous contact sports – professional football, ice hockey, boxing and wrestling, for example – are at risk for traumatic brain injury, which describes a medical condition that arises as the result of a sudden, forceful impact to the head. When this happens, the brain itself is pushed up against the side of the skull, causing nerve fibers to tear. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1.6 million to 3.8 million people suffer head injuries as a result of a collision with a stationary or moving object, either because of sporting or recreational activities, car accidents or acts of violence.
Citations “Trauma.” (n.d.) American Psychological Association. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?” (n.d.) National Institute of Mental Health. December 8, 2014.  “What is Trauma?” (January 2012). Psychology Today. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “What is Trauma?” (n.d.) Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “How Childhood Trauma May Make the Brain Vulnerable to Addiction, Depression.” (August 2012). TIME. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “Emotional Trauma: An Often Overlooked Root of Addiction.” (May 2012). Psych Central. Accessed December 9, 2014.  “Bullying in the Family.” (June 2013). TIME. Accessed December 9, 2014.  “Depression and Substance Abuse: The Chicken or the Egg?” (2010). PsychCentral. Accessed December 7, 2014.  “Substance Use and Functional Impairment Among Adolescents Directly Exposed to the 2001 World Trade Center Attacks.” (November 2008). Disasters. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “Cannabis Use and Later Life Outcomes.” (June 2008). Addiction. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “How Childhood Trauma Creates Lifelong Adult Addicts.” (September 2011). The Fix. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “Substance Use, Childhood Traumatic Experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an Urban Civilian Population.” (December 2010). Depression and Anxiety. Accessed December 8, 2014.  “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study.” (May 1998). American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Accessed December 9, 2014.  “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” (n.d.) Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Accessed December 9, 2014.  “Sex Differences in Fear Conditioning in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” (January 2013). Journal of Psychiatric Research. Accessed December 10, 2014.  “Trauma and Food Addiction Linked for Women.” (September 2014). Live Science. Accessed December 9, 2014.  “Body Weight and Obesity in Adults and Self-Reported Abuse in Childhood.” (August 2002). International Journal of Obesity. Accessed December 9, 2014.  “What is traumatic brain injury (TBI)? What causes traumatic brain injury?” (October 2014). Medical News Today. Accessed December 7, 2014.  “Substance Abuse and Traumatic Brain Injury.” (n.d.) Brainline.org. Accessed December 7, 2014.  “Alcohol and Drug Use Among Young Persons with Traumatic Brain Injury.” (November 1996). Journal of Learning Disabilities. Accessed December 10, 2014.  “Does Traumatic Brain Injury Increase Risk for Substance Abuse?” (July 2009). Journal of Neurotrauma. Accessed December 7, 2014.
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