Dealing With Trauma in Sobriety

Dealing With Trauma in Sobriety

Trauma and substance abuse issues often go hand-in-hand. Many people learn to deal with trauma by self-medicating – using and abusing drugs or alcohol. Conversely, many people suffer trauma from their past drug and alcohol abuse, so the behavior becomes a cycle.

The only way to break this cyclical pattern is to give yourself the time to heal from the trauma that may be causing your addictive behaviors. Breaking the addiction is only one piece of the puzzle; the other is rooting out the wound and doing your best to heal.

What is Trauma?

Trauma looks different to everyone. It usually stems from one particularly sad or frightening experience, like the death of someone close; physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; illness and surgeries; war and natural disasters, or intense emotional strife like a divorce.

A trauma is any event or set of circumstances that a person cannot let go of and, when revisited, cause renewed pain and suffering. Many turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain stemming from the experience to cope with the trauma.

Those who have come through a traumatic experience often feel Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Along with the other symptoms of trauma, those with PTSD have intense flashbacks or even hallucinations and may avoid any scenario that is reminiscent of their traumatic past.

Along with self-medication, there are other symptoms and signs that you’ve experienced significant trauma and PTSD. Emotionally, you may have wide mood swings, be in denial, feel the need to withdraw from activities you like and those close to you, and suffer from night terrors or nightmares.

Physically, your weight may fluctuate, your sleep patterns may be disrupted, and your sex drive could dissipate. Additionally, you may find that you startle easily, get swept up and overwhelmed by emotion often, have a racing heart rate, and feel your flight-or-fight response go on high alert for no reason.

With the help of the right therapist and support system, most people can work through these symptoms within weeks or months, lessening their intensity. Others who do not have the same support avenues may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma’s memories and symptoms.

How are Trauma and Substance Abuse Connected?

Many people find it challenging to deal with the negative feelings and responses of their bodies due to the effects of trauma. Drugs and alcohol are two ways that people numb their pain, distracting them from the actual work of healing their trauma.

Unfortunately, if you have a substance abuse problem, you may be opening yourself up for situations that increase your risk of experiencing more trauma. Common traumatic events that addicts experience may include violent assaults, victimization, broken relationships, homelessness, serious disease, and deaths of companions who are also users.

Over time, self-medication ceases to alleviate the pain of PTSD and the remembered trauma and only serves to exacerbate it.

Much like grief for the death of a loved one, working through trauma requires you to go through several stages. It is crucial to work through these stages while you’re in recovery, where it is a safe place with trained professionals to lead you.

How to Treat Trauma

Many tools are available to the recovering addict to keep them on the path toward wholeness and healing. Psychotherapy, trauma education, group therapy, and one-on-one sessions are essential treatment methods that can help people put their traumatic events behind them for good and live their lives to their fullest potential.

There are other types of treatments that may provide a recovering addict with the tools they need to continue chipping away at their trauma. Exposure therapy, behavioral therapy, and treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy can help provide the scope and understanding you need to fully heal from your trauma.

Once you have left a treatment center, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have completely healed from your trauma. It is essential to stay on top of your recovery so you don’t backslide.

One of the most vulnerable times for any recovering addict is the readjustment back to regular life. It’s crucial in these first few months to lean on your support system and continue building back from your traumatic event.

Treatment Centers that Specialize in Trauma

If you believe you have suffered severe trauma and PTSD and have been using drugs and alcohol to numb the symptoms, it is paramount to choose a treatment center with extensive experience in treating addicts who’ve suffered trauma.

Every aspect of the substance addiction program should be mindful and informed by an awareness of trauma and its consequences to create the ideal safe place to heal. If you’re in an environment that is not emotionally suitable for those with trauma, you could end up feeling more damaged than when you began.

Trauma-integrated treatment systems have the best success for people who have used self-medication to bury their trauma and PTSD. These two disorders interact with one another, and the mistreatment of one can often lead to the resurgence of the other.

When you’re getting ready to leave treatment, it is vital to create a long-term plan with your therapists to build a foundation for your departure. Sober living facilities, weekly meetings, and scheduled check-ups can all serve to support and bolster you as you battle out those first few months.

The primary aim for those who have come out of a treatment program and are still trying to heal from past traumas is to know they are not alone. Everybody perceives trauma differently; it is not the therapist’s job to cast judgment on what is or isn’t a perceived trauma, but to teach the skills needed to heal.

The Final Word

If you have suffered from significant trauma and engaged in harmful addictive behaviors to forget the experience, your treatment center should be well-versed on how to treat patients who have PTSD.

Everyone defines trauma differently, and it is the job of the therapist and staff at the treatment center to understand trauma-informed behavior so that it can best support those who have PTSD.

At Right Path Addiction Treatment Centers, we help you break the cycle of addiction and trauma by appropriately addressing each disorder. With varied treatments and knowledgeable staff, we can help end your dependencies and heal from your trauma.


Written by Sergey Zhitar, MD Medical Director

Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.

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