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Trauma and Alcoholism

trauma and alcoholism

When someone survives a traumatic experience or circumstances, their trauma will have lasting consequences for their physical and emotional health. Too often, substance abuse becomes one of these consequences. Because of the connection between trauma and alcoholism, trauma-informed care is a crucial part of recovery. As trauma survivors with substance use disorders address their trauma history with a trained, empathetic professional, they learn how trauma impacted them in the past and how to keep it from defining their future.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Lasting Trauma?

Everyone experiences trauma differently. However, there are some characteristics that many trauma survivors tend to have in common, including high-stress levels. During a traumatic event, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline stress hormones, which trigger a “fight-or-flight” response to protect a person from danger. People may experience a similar stress response even after the traumatic event has passed.

Trauma survivors may continue to relive the event in their minds or see recurring visions or “flashbacks” of the event. They might go out of their way to avoid any reminders of the trauma. They sometimes exhibit behavioral traits like:

  • Irritability and agitation
  • Extreme displays of emotion
  • Trouble trusting and relating to others
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Self-isolation
  • Forms of self-harm, such as eating disorders

Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are mental health conditions that often go hand in hand with trauma and alcoholism. Though not all trauma survivors will develop substance use disorder or be diagnosed with mental health conditions, trauma is a significant risk factor in both cases.

The Risk of Self-Medicating With Alcohol

Addiction can be an unconscious trauma response. Trauma creates an environment where the survivor feels isolated by their experience and unable to connect to others. The survivor might feel that no one else can understand what they’ve been through. Or they might worry that others don’t want to be around them because of their trauma responses.

Survivors sometimes turn to alcohol and drugs to numb strong emotions as a coping mechanism. Alcohol may be the easiest way to avoid flashbacks, distressing thoughts, and other symptoms. If survivors feel relieved and calm when they’re drinking, they might continue drinking, so the pleasant feelings return. This self-medicating with alcohol can become a pattern, where a person develops a habit of drinking whenever triggers remind them of their trauma.

While alcohol can provide temporary relief, the initial effects wear off quickly and leave people more depressed than they were before. Eventually, they can develop a tolerance to alcohol, where they need to drink more than they once did to feel good.

Alcoholism is common in people with PTSD. While many people with PTSD are veterans who have served in the military, other kinds of trauma, such as childhood trauma, can lead to PTSD as well. A trauma survivor with PTSD may have trouble processing or dealing with past events and begin self-medicating with alcohol to cope instead.

Childhood trauma and alcoholism also have a significant connection. Since the brain is easily reshapable in childhood, children undergoing trauma often experience changes to their brain—they may have permanently high-stress hormone levels, for instance.

How Does Trauma-Informed Treatment Help in Recovery?

People with alcoholism may not even realize their drinking is a response to trauma. Without this awareness, it’s more difficult for them to stop their substance use. If someone recognizes the reasons behind their substance abuse, they’re better able to understand how they can change their actions.

Treatment, including individual therapy, can help clients connect trauma and alcoholism in their personal history and understand the role trauma plays in their addiction. Many medical and mental health professionals believe that substance abuse and trauma should be treated together. This approach is sometimes called trauma-informed or trauma-integrated treatment. A trauma-informed model also addresses any co-occurring disorders a client may have, like PTSD or depression.

There are multiple evidence-based treatment methods to meet the needs of every individual, including:

  • Peer support groups
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on changing behavior by changing thinking patterns
  • Grief counseling
  • Holistic treatments, such as yoga and meditation
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) focuses on emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills

Footprints Beachside Recovery Offers Trauma-Informed Care

Our tranquil beachside Florida location provides an ideal setting for healing and hope. More importantly, our skilled and compassionate staff members practice trauma-integrated care that considers how clients can recover physically, mentally, and emotionally. We have a small, family-like center with the resources to focus on each client and a range of outpatient and inpatient program options.

Additionally, we have an addiction recovery program specifically for veterans. Our practitioners are sensitive to the unique needs and strengths of military veterans who struggle with trauma. We accept Optum VA veterans’ insurance as well as other insurance types.

Contact us at 727.513.5972 or online if you have questions about trauma-informed recovery for you or someone you love.