Living through a traumatic experience can change many things in your life. It can affect how you interact with your loved ones, how you go about your daily routine and the ways you cope with distress.

Sadly, many people who live through traumatic experiences like sexual abuse, violence or a school shooting struggle with a substance use disorder at some point in their lifetimes. In this article, we’ll explore the effects of trauma on behavior and how drug or alcohol abuse can interfere with healing.

Trauma and Addiction

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as the emotional response to a terrible event. Trauma can impact anyone and can affect those who lived through the same event in diverse ways.

When a terrifying event has residual effects and a person is unable to move forward, a clinical diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often given. This disorder is characterized by the following four significant symptoms according to the Mayo Clinic.

  • Intrusive memories, such as flashbacks or nightmares
  • Avoidance behaviors and attempting to avoid thinking about the traumatic event
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood such as feeling numb or hopeless
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions, such as hypervigilance

PTSD is much more prevalent than is generally assumed. The National Center for PTSD states that an estimated 6 out of 100 Americans will face the disorder at some point during their lives. 

Impact of Trauma

The effects of trauma on behavior are wide-ranging but there are some commonalities. One of the most common effects of trauma on behavior is increased substance use, with a risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Studies have shown staggering statistics regarding trauma and substance use, especially for those who experienced trauma in childhood. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states that an estimated 70 percent of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse have a history of trauma exposure. 

Moreover, those who had a history of physical or sexual abuse were three times more likely to report struggles with substance abuse than those without a history of trauma. 

A person may seek any number of substances after an experience of trauma. The most commonly abused substances include alcohol (which is easy to obtain and relatively cheap compared to some drugs), marijuana (which is legal for recreational use in many states), prescription drugs (like Adderall) and opioid pain relievers. 

The Connection between Trauma and Addiction

There are two prevailing theories regarding the correlation between trauma and substance use. The first is that both substance use disorders and PTSD have similar underlying risk factors, such as experiences of poverty and unstable home situations. A person faced with life stressors out of their control may be more likely to succumb to both conditions.

The second major theory is that people who struggle with any type of mental distress are attempting to self-medicate using drugs and alcohol. While both theories may be true in part, it’s likely a combination of these theories.

When a person simultaneously suffers from trauma and addiction, they are at an increased risk of experiencing chronic physical health problems, poorer social functioning, higher rates of suicide attempts, more legal problems, increased risk of violence, poor treatment adherence and lower rates of improvement during treatment according to a study published in Clinical Psychology.

Effects of Trauma on Behavior

In addition to increased substance use and a higher prevalence of co-occurring disorders, those who have been impacted by trauma also demonstrate other hallmark behaviors. Even if the behaviors aren’t severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of PTSD, trauma may manifest in some of the following ways.

  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Apathy or disinterest in previously enjoyed hobbies and activities
  • Sadness and hopelessness
  • Not making plans for the future
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Appearing to zone out when being spoken to
  • Losing a train of thought frequently
  • Becoming irritated easily
  • Struggling to keep up with personal relationships
  • Failing to keep commitments
  • Avoiding answering phone calls or texts
  • Making excuses for avoiding social interactions or difficult tasks
  • Forgetting to do normal daily things, like brushing one’s teeth or skipping meals accidentally
  • Being easily startled
  • Having difficulty relaxing
  • Reacting strongly to loud noises

To learn more about the effects of trauma on behavior, the book “Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services” published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration lists additional immediate and delayed reactions to traumatic events.

Support for Trauma and Substance Abuse 

If you or someone you love has lived through a terrible event and sought to self-medicate through drugs or alcohol, it’s time to get help for co-occurring disorders. Silver Ridge Recovery can help. 

Build a strong foundation for your future with personalized treatment to meet your needs. Call Silver Ridge Recovery today to start your healing journey.