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As a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, I would say over 1/3 of the patients I’ve worked with have presented with some form of substance abuse. Some people come in with full blown addictions while others may report drinking more than they should. Some symptoms people report include impaired control, social impairment, risky use, and sometimes tolerance and withdrawal. The most commonly abused substances in the US include alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, prescription pain killers such as OxyContin, and prescription stimulants such as Adderall.

Your Brain On Drugs

When someone is stressed out, levels of GABA (a natural tranquilizer produced by the brain) are lowered and adrenaline is increased. GABA can be stimulated by drugs that suppress the nervous system (opioids, alcohol, marijuana). Dopamine also plays a huge role in why drugs can be so addicting. Our brains are wired to increase the odds we will repeat pleasurable activities. As drugs produce euphoria, they also produce huge surges of dopamine resulting in pleasure. The difference between natural rewards (food, sex, exercise) and drug rewards is similar to the difference between someone whispering and someone screaming into a microphone.

The Traumatized Brain

As we learned in a previous blog post, exposure to abuse and violence fosters a hyperactive brain alarm system which translates to a body that’s stuck in fight/flight/freeze. Feeling in a constant state of danger and helplessness promotes continuous secretion of stress hormone. When our amygdala (alarm system) is constantly firing, we are unable to feel relief and we feel unsafe in our bodies. When someone feels at war in their body, using a substance to help regulate makes a lot of sense. Drugs and alcohol can help a person regulate emotions or numb out intense emotions. They also can help someone avoid thinking about the trauma, can provide relief and comfort, and can assist with sleeping or staying awake.

What the Studies Suggests….

In one of the most well-known studies on trauma and addiction, Kaiser collected data from over 17,000 patients. They found that children who experienced four or more traumatic events in childhood were 5x more likely to become an alcoholic, 60% more likely to become obese, and 46x more likely to become and injection (IV) drug user. Studies also indicate that in adolescents with PTSD, 59% will develop a substance abuse problem.

Is there hope?

While drugs and alcohol can provide temporary relief for trauma symptoms, they are not a long term solution. If you are currently using substances and are wanting to make a change, it can be important to provide the following in your treatment plan…

A Medical Doctor- This is one of the first things I recommend to someone who is looking to stop using substances. Unfortunately stopping using can be uncomfortable and dangerous at times so being under the care of a medical doctor can help with lowering withdrawal symptoms and staying safe.

Psychiatrist- There are fortunately a few meds out there that can be helpful in decreasing symptoms and lowering cravings. Also, often people with trauma are struggling with anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other symptoms that may be addressed partly through medication management with a psychiatrist.

Therapist- A therapist can be helpful in uncovering core issues behind the substance abuse and working through trauma and loss. They can also provide interventions to help with cognitive restructuring, gaining coping skills, and relapse prevention skills. A therapist can also provide referrals to other resources that may be helpful in your recovery.

Social Support- Having a network of people who are supportive can be essential in recovery. Some people will find the support they are looking for in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) where they can relate to others with similar struggles. Others find relief in church groups or other social engagements.

Treatment Programs- Some people may feel unable to stop on their own. In this case, some people find that a residential or outpatient treatment center can help get them started on their path of recovery.

If you are struggling with addiction after trauma and would like to learn more about Shannon’s services, contact her today for a free consultation.



Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.

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