It’s Complicated – Trauma and Substance Abuse

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While psychological trauma is characterized by disruptions in a person’s sense of control, addiction can also be viewed as a disorder of control, or more accurately, an inability to control. The loss of control is insidious, often unrecognized by the addict until, in Alcoholics Anonymous terms, life becomes unmanageable.”

~Psychological Trauma and Addiction Treatment, edited by Dr. Bruce Carruth, PhD, LCSW

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 25% of American children experience at least one potentially-traumatic experience before they reach adulthood. Attempting to cope with that trauma leads many teens into substance use and, ultimately, addiction.

What Types of Trauma Might Children Experience?

Trauma refers to any experience that is painful, emotionally distressing, and beyond the control of the individual. Using that definition, there are many instances where a teenager might feel powerless:

  • Suffering any form of child abuse
  • Witnessing/experiencing domestic violence
  • Natural disasters – earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, etc.
  • Severe illness or disease
  • Injury
  • Sexual assault
  • Death of a loved one
  • Surviving/witnessing a serious accident
  • Parental divorce
  • Witnessing a parent’s substance abuse

The Link between Trauma and Addiction

The correlation between trauma and addiction has been suggested by several studies:

  • Teenaged victims of sexual or physical assault/abuse are three times more likely to struggle with substance abuse.
  • Over 70% of teens in substance abuse treatment have a personal history of exposure to trauma.
  • Almost 60% of teens suffering from PTSD will develop a substance abuse disorder.
  • Substance-abusing teens are twice as likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic experience than their peers who abstain from usage.
  • In between 45% and 66% of cases, substance abuse preceded exposure to trauma.

Substance Abuse as a Coping Mechanism

Trauma results in complex feelings that can be difficult to process, so a suffering teenager may turn to alcohol or drugs. They do this for two primary reasons:

  • To escape from/forget about the negative emotions and memories associated with the traumatic experience.
  • To numb themselves from emotional or physical pain.

Ultimately, however, attempting to cope with painful experiences by using intoxicating substances only makes the situation worse by increasing the risk of further trauma.

How Substance Abuse Can Lead to Trauma

Teen drug use or excessive drinking can lead to engaging in other risky behaviors which can result in new trauma. Some commonplace examples of this are:

  • Overdose – 1999-2001 versus 2011-2013, teen overdose death rates skyrocketed – tripling or even quadrupling in 1 out of every 3 US states.
  • Binge drinking – Nearly 1 out of 5 teens admits to engaging in binge drinking within the past month.
  • Drunken-driving or riding with someone else who had been drinking – 60% of teenage car crash deaths involve alcohol.
  • Sexual assault – Almost three-fourths of the perpetrators and over half of the victims admit to drinking  before the incident.
  • Violence – 94% of violent teens use alcohol and 85% use marijuana.
  • Self-harm – People with substance abuse disorders are 6 times more likely to attempt suicide.

How to Help Teens with Co-Occurring Trauma and Addiction

Treating comorbid disorders is always difficult, but there are specific challenges to providing services for teenagers. Teens usually enter in recovery program against their wills, because they are brought in by their parents, ordered to attend by the Court, or referred by their school. Right from the start, they may show reluctance to adhere to their prescribed treatment plan.

Furthermore, traumatized teens often have difficulty expressing their emotions, a key component to a successful return to sobriety. “Acting out” may be the only way they know how to communicate.

Integrated and individualized evidence-based strategies that address both the trauma and the addiction simultaneously are the most effective way to give a suffering teen the help they need. Successful strategies may include:

  • Behavioral modification
  • Psychodrama
  • Individual psychological counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Trauma/grief processing
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

If your teenager has experienced trauma and is turning to drugs or alcohol for relief, help IS available. For nearly 40 years, Teensavers Treatment Centers have provided a welcoming environment where teens can safely detox and receive treatment for substance abuse, behavioral, and emotional issues.

By Albert Fontenot

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