The Link Between Emotional, Physical, and Sexual Trauma and Substance Abuse
By Brigid Rasmussen
What is Trauma?
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. It is more than just a bad day, it is something that can alter one’s self-image, lead to poor life choices, and cause a variety of mental disorders, most commonly: Depression, anxiety, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. 60% of adults report having endured a traumatic experience as a child, and 25% of these happened before the age of four.
PTSD and Substance Abuse:
People develop PTSD most commonly as a result of physical or sexual trauma– following abuse, rape, and for veterans who encountered traumatic experiences in a war.
PTSD is often categorized into four primary symptoms:
- Avoidance: staying away from people, places, or things that are reminders of the event
- Re-experiencing: flashbacks, frightening thoughts, or nightmares
- Arousal and reactivity: difficulties sleeping, being “on edge,” angry outbursts, or being easily startled
- Cognition and mood symptoms: distorted feelings of guilt, negative image of self, memory issues, or loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
About 50-66% of those suffering from PTSD have a simultaneous addiction problem (American Center for Addiction, 2016). Drugs can increase pleasure, decrease anxiety, and provide a distraction from difficult emotions. The issue here is that these drugs are only a temporary relief, can be very detrimental to one’s health, and can leave to them developing violent behavioral patterns.
Biological Reasoning Behind PTSD and Substance Abuse:
When someone feels stressed, levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) are lowered, and adrenaline is increased. GABA is basically a natural tranquilizer made by the brain that can also be stimulated by drugs that conceals the central nervous system, such as opioids, marijuana, alcohol, and benzodiazepines. Drugs also temporarily increase levels of dopamine, which controls the pleasure centers in the brain.
- PTSD is truly a psychological injury in that people are not born with it, but develop it based on a painful experience
- Most commonly, parents abuse their kids as a form of punishment, leading children to believe that they are at fault and deserve this physical punishment
- Some parents abuse their children for the way they are: such as being gay, not achieving perfect grades, and not having athletic achievements.
- Child abusers often times have unrealistic expectations for their children and are unknowing of the child development process
- Child abuse plays a significant role in substance abuse, proven by a 2002 study that 69% of substance abusers have been sexually or physically traumatized (Liebschutz, 2002)
Additional Statistics, Proving the Extremities of Childhood Trauma in the US:
- 1 in 5 girls experience sexual assault as a child (victimsofcrime.org; 2012)
- 1 in 20 boys experience sexual assault as a child (victimsofcrime.org; 2012)
- Roughly 700,000 children in the United States each year suffer from physical abuse (victimsofcrime.org; 2012)
Some real life examples of sexual assault, from the young age of 7 and 8, both involving someone the person knew:
The Vicious Cycle:
Abusers are more often that not past victims of adolescent neglect or abuse. Thus, they have turned to alcohol or drugs to numb the painful experiences they have endured. Alcohol and drugs are both prone to triggering violent behavior, altering one’s sense of morality. The victims of their violent behavior feel worthless, guilty, and sometimes even like it’s their own fault. They will rely on drugs and alcohol, which then could trigger violent behavior toward others. Ultimately, PTSD from childhood trauma leads to substance abuse, which can lead to violent behavior in adults.
If you or someone you know has experienced physical, sexual, or emotional trauma– it is never too late to seek professional help:
- Sexual abuse hotline: Call 1-800-656-4673
- Physical abuse hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE