Trauma, which means “wound” in Greek, is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds a person’s ability to cope with or process the emotions as a result of that experience. A traumatic event can involve one experience or repeated traumatic events which leave a person with a sense of being overwhelmed. These feelings can be delayed by weeks, years, or even decades as the person struggles to cope with their present life’s immediate circumstances.
Often times psychological trauma leads to serious, long-term negative consequences that can be overlooked even by mental health professionals. Since trauma plays a role in addiction, treatment centers need to observe clients through a trauma lens. This means to conceptualize a client’s problems as they may possibly relate to current or past trauma. Addiction and other destructive behaviors are often used to cope with recent or suppressed psychological trauma.
Trauma and Self Medicating
Typically psychological trauma victims try to avoid or re-experience the trauma. They may turn to illegal drugs or alcohol to try to escape the feelings. Re-experiencing symptoms are a sign that the body and mind are actively struggling to cope with the traumatic experience. Many trauma victims will self medicate, which immediately alleviates the bad feelings. Numbing out becomes a way of managing trauma and dealing with life.
Many trauma victims self medicate with psychoactive drugs. Psychoactive drugs are used for their mood and perception altering effects including those with accepted uses in medicine and psychiatry. Psychoactive drugs operate by temporarily affecting a person’s neurochemistry, which in turn causes changes in a person’s mood, cognition, perception and behavior. There are many ways in which psychoactive drugs can affect the brain. Each drug has a specific action on one or more neurotransmitter or neuroreceptor in the brain. Examples of drugs most commonly abused include caffeine, alcohol, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana. Stimulants activate the central nervous system, hallucinogens induce perceptual and cognitive distortions, and Opiates depress the central nervous system. All these drugs are used to self medicate because of their euphoric effects.
Undiagnosed Trauma, Addiction and Treatment
When the trauma survivor’s self medicating behavior begins to cause life problems such as loss of a job, or a driving while intoxicated offense, is generally the time that treatment is sought. In many cases the psychological trauma is subconscious but never the less has fueled the addiction.
Suffering with undiagnosed trauma and addiction at the same time is called dual diagnosis. Attending a treatment center that focuses on the dually diagnosed client is often the first time the client is made aware of their deep seated emotional issues. This is an obvious relief for the client who did not understand what was motivating their destructive addictive behavior. By treating the suppressed or unsuppressed trauma, the dually diagnosed addict has a much greater chance of long term recovery.
Unless the treatment center is trained in assessing and treating the dually diagnosed client, the trauma may go unnoticed. Treating the underlying issues that are supporting the addiction is critical to treating the addiction. Simply treating the addiction will more than likely result in a relapse since the trauma survivor will once again need to find relief from the emotional pain.