Trauma and Substance Abuse Across the Lifespan

The need for addiction treatment isn’t felt solely by individuals who have developed a dependency during adulthood. The threat of addiction presents much sooner for many, as substance abuse can pose a problem as early as adolescence and on throughout adulthood. The introduction to drugs at any age can eventually lead to substance use and evolve into an addiction. However, the sooner you recognize the underlying patterns and strengthen resiliency skills, the more chances you will have to counteract the adverse effects associated with addiction. 


There are many components that prompt substance use. In some cases, the initiation of substances is the result of coping with trauma. Suffering from trauma at a young age can have lifelong effects, including developing co-occurring mental health disorders.


Research published in Addiction Journal shows that individuals who have used drugs or developed an addiction have experienced at least one form of childhood trauma. The effects of childhood trauma can transfer into adolescence, emerging adulthood, and adulthood. Identifying problematic responses to trauma can aid in creating effective interventions and the prevention of substance abuse. 


What Exactly is Trauma?

Trauma symptoms can manifest in various ways and affect each individual differently. Many people go throughout life experiencing, responding and adapting to traumatic experiences without even knowing they’ve encountered a life-threatening incident. 


Trauma is a psychological and physical response to a life-threatening event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Typical responses immediately after the event include shock and denial. Other reactions include fluctuating emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty managing their lives.


Harsh childhood circumstances such as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are deemed traumatic and associated with health problems and mental illnesses developed later in adulthood. ACEs consist of abuse, neglect and negative home challenges such as a guardian being sexually abusive, a family member constantly insulting and swearing at a child, or an incarcerated parent absent from the home. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one type of ACE. Nearly 1 in 6 stated they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.


Effects of Trauma

The effects of trauma can be pervasive throughout one’s lifespan. How an individual responds, recovers or manages traumatic symptoms differ on factors such as their level of resiliency, their access to support, and the overall impact of the incident. 


For some, recovering from a life-threatening event can be a matter of redefining or re-framing their life. Instead of seeing a horrific incident altering their personal growth, they create an opportunity to rebuild their life positively. Some examples of using healthy coping skills to recover from trauma are:

  • Setting new and meaningful goals
  • Redirecting attention to helping others
  • Focusing on increasing connection with family members and friends
  • Rediscovering their life purpose
  • Reestablishing priorities

Recovering from a traumatic experience can be less challenging for an adult with strong independence skills as opposed to a child or adolescent navigating critical developmental stages. The child who endures trauma may lack the ability to respond to the incident with healthy, self-sustaining coping skills—due to the biological constraints of growth and development, social barriers such as an unsupportive home environment and their dependence on neglectful parental or guardian care. 


When not managed or treated properly, symptoms like anxiety and depression can intensify and eventually lead to more chronic mental illnesses. Common co-occurring disorders that result from childhood trauma include mood disorders, personality disorders, anxiety disorders and substance abuse.


Suffering, Dealing and Coping with Trauma

Common reactions to trauma include irritability, anxiety, numbness of feelings, hypervigilance, constant thoughts about the incident and inappropriate guilt. If the trauma is ongoing, individuals may often find themselves in a continual state of worry, distress and guardedness. Physiological and psychological responses—racing heartbeat, muscle tension, flashbacks, prolonged negative memories—can intensify when experiencing a trigger or reminder of the traumatic incident. 


The need to cope effectively is crucial. Because trauma is considered more of an extreme stressor outside of typical life stressors, many individuals are not prepared to understand or manage symptoms. Daily functioning and simple tasks are significantly impaired by ongoing trauma-related stress. 


In an attempt to alleviate extreme distress, many who have intense and severe effects of trauma try to cope by whatever means necessary. Often this urgency to subside symptoms leads to irrational and risky decisions of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. 


Substance Use During Childhood

While it may seem that the use of certain drugs relieves symptoms, substance use often intensifies and exasperates the symptoms of mental disorders. As they seek ways to cope, young people who experience trauma are at a higher risk of experimenting with drugs. Consequently, this initiation of drugs at a young age increases the likelihood of using substances throughout adolescence and adulthood. The use of marijuana is more prevalent among adolescents because of the belief that it relieves stress and manages symptoms. 

This cycle of self-medicating with drugs increases the probability of developing co-occurring disorders or comorbidity. The use of substances to alleviate traumatic symptoms not only induces the onset of other mental health disorders but it impairs many areas of functioning. 


What was once a means to manage stress, the use of drugs creates a more severe problem as it significantly weakens the young person’s ability to perform well and thrive in their environment. The following are warning signs to look out for if you suspect your young person experimenting with substances:

  • Mood and Personality Changes: Consistent sadness, irritability, low mood, unusually energetic, withdrawn or silent
  • Behavioral Changes: Low school performance, lack of interests in activities, secretive behaviors, damaged connection with family or friend relationships
  • Changes in Hygiene/Appearance: Messier, unusual smells on clothes, poor hygiene
  • Health Changes: Unexplained bruises or marks, frequent sickness, consistent tiredness, sudden weight loss or gain


Continued Substance Use Into Adulthood

The continuation of substance use into adulthood while dealing with other mental health disorders steadily deteriorates the individual’s overall functioning in life—work, relationships and personal well-being. As symptoms worsen, more intense interventions such as addiction treatment are needed. 


Substance abuse is an evasive disorder that permeates all areas of life and impairs judgment and insight, particularly when under the influence. Once co-occurring disorders develop, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder, individuals find it more challenging to envision a life beyond the constant struggle of managing stress. 


The danger of experiencing trauma at a young age and adopting unhealthy coping skills is developing distorted beliefs like “Normal life will always be dreadful.” It is common for individuals experiencing these challenges to have low self-esteem and lack hope in maintaining a healthier life.


Focusing Beyond the Trauma

Once drug use extends over a significant period, individuals transition from using drugs to manage trauma-related symptoms to using drugs to manage the addiction. Persons often deny using drugs out of a belief that they have control over their substance use. At this point, intervention focuses not just on the trauma but also on mental health and substance abuse disorders. Answering yes to the following questions can indicate that you may have a substance use disorder:

  • Do you use substances in ways that are dangerous to yourself and others?
  • Does your substance use create challenges in your relationships?
  • Are you spending a lot of time using?
  • Have you failed to meet your responsibilities at school, work or home because of substance use?
  • Are you unsuccessful in decreasing your use?
  • When you stop using, do you experience withdrawal symptoms?
  • Are you using larger amounts for longer periods?
  • Does your substance use cause physical or mental health problems?
  • Are you stopping other activities so you can use substances?
  • Do you have constant cravings for the substance?


The Social, Psychological, and Biological Aftermath

Judgment and insight are severely damaged as the need to maintain an addiction outweighs the consequences of reckless decisions. Persons who increasingly engage in risky activities to maintain a substance abuse disorder eventually come into problems with employment, the deterioration of relationships, and involvement in criminal activities. It is not uncommon for individuals with substance abuse disorders to become frequently involved in the legal system due to the progression of drug-related activities associated with criminal activity.

The effects of experiencing trauma at a young age can have drastic and extensive challenges when not identified early. Symptoms left untreated can evolve into more serious challenges, including co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse. Intervening with the right support systems and resources can help young people recover and redirect their path toward a healthier lifestyle.

Here at The Right Step, we understand the effects of trauma experienced at an early age and how it shows up in co-occurring disorders such as addiction. Our team is well-equipped to provide the support and appropriate treatment models to help you overcome these challenges. If you or someone you know has experienced early childhood trauma and has been using substances to ease the stress, please call The Right Step at 844-675-1557.


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