What is Trauma?
Trauma is the brain’s normal reaction to any event that shatters your safe world so that it is no longer safe. It is an overwhelming emotional reaction which leads to the inability to function, and it is not a sign of personal weakness. Instead our brain engages survival responses whenever we’re faced with these events in the form of fight, flight or freeze responses.
When experiencing trauma, we may be unable to sleep, think, work, be confident, trust or relax. We lose the ability to think and feel. All kinds of trauma create stress reactions. Common ones can include depression, anger, drug and substance abuse, shame, fear, lying, screaming, nightmares and/or tiredness, just to name a few.
There are several types of trauma, however we will take a closer look into psychological/emotional trauma. This form is a result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Psychological trauma can leave a person struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. As well as feelings of numbness, disconnected, and unable to trust other people.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by:
We all react to trauma in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. But what heals trauma? Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the unsettling event. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds you of the trauma.
We must feel to heal! Sometimes the trauma reactions (depression, anger, substance abuse, etc.) can keep us stuck. By becoming aware of our reactions, we can understand them and learn how to make them work for us and not against us. The painful memories need to be processed to eliminate intrusive thoughts and negative beliefs, to increase self-esteem and personal empowerment, to feel validated and understood and to reduce trauma symptoms.
In some ways, we’re like a sponge for stress and trauma. And like a sponge, we accumulate it until there is no space to accumulate any more.
DRUGS AND DRUG ABUSE
A drug is any substance, other than food, that alters the body or mind’s functionality, when taken. Legal drugs are known as over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are all legal drugs as well. Illegal drugs refer to drugs that are not prescribed by a licensed medical professional, and their use is unlawful under “Drugs Control and Substance Use Act”.
Substance abuse is an intentional pattern of harmful use of any substance(including prescription medications, non-prescription medications, and alcohol) for purposes of altering your mood. People are often unaware of the serious health risks involved in abusing prescription drugs. Because prescription drugs are “legal” and are known to be manufactured to meet quality and safety standards. Safety can only be assumed if the drug is taken by the intended person as directed by the prescribing doctor.
People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. Classic symptoms of an addiction may include, but are not limited to: declining grades, poor work performance, relationship difficulties, an inability to discontinue using a substance despite problems arising as a result of use, and profound changes in appearance. When someone abruptly stops using a substance that they are addicted to, they may experience certain withdrawal symptoms which vary on the substance that they are addicted to. For those who have become physically dependent on a substance, abrupt discontinuation may provoke unpleasant symptoms. It is considered socially acceptable to consume moderate amounts of alcohol within a social gathering and it is not questioned when an individual expresses that they need a drink once they arrive at home after a long stressful day. However, it is much more alarming when a person takes their drinking to the point of complete oblivion on a regular basis and finds themselves facing consequences of their choices they made while under the influence of alcohol. While the term “addiction” is not limited to ingesting legal or illegal substances, it is also an umbrella term for those who have lost their ability to discontinue in activities such as gambling, sex, pornography, eating, shopping or working.
TRAUMA AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE
The use of drugs or substances can be prompted by trauma or trauma-related mental health disorders. People who are scarred by a traumatic event will turn to drugs or the bottle to cope, when flooded by feelings of fear or guilt. This is called self-medicating. They will use drugs or alcohol in attempt to manage any distress from the trauma. These substances provide temporary relief, either numbing emotional pain or helping the person escape difficult thoughts for a period of time.
The problem is, these substances wear off, and when they do, they are followed by extremely low moods and sometimes painful withdrawal symptoms. This can worsen the effects of traumatic disorders.
Sometimes, substance abuse can lead to a traumatic experience in one’s life. As we may know, drug and alcohol use can lead to a slew of risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex, physical violence, and driving under the influence. Often, these risky behaviors are followed by adverse or traumatic outcomes – sex without consent, serious injury, and car accidents are just a few. For many, these traumatic events can lead to long-term, trauma-triggered emotional consequences (and perhaps heightened substance abuse as a result).
Whether physical, sexual, or emotional, trauma can have a profound and lasting affect if unaddressed. In order to properly heal from a substance use disorder, a person must also get to the source of their addiction. If traumatic exposure is at the root of it, that must be handled and overcome. Coping mechanisms must be taught. Otherwise, the distress of the trauma is likely to surface, trigger drug cravings, and cause relapse down the road. The same goes vice versa. In order to effectively overcome trauma, a person must also address their drug abuse problems. Otherwise, the addictive chemicals, and the way they act within the brain, can re-provoke negative traumatic feelings and stressors.
It is for this reason that today, trauma and substance abuse should be treated at the same time, in the same place.