“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” ~ Fred Rogers For many, it can be difficult to understand what trauma is, let alone recognize the long-term effects of trauma and how to deal with it. In simple terms, trauma is a specific emotional response to an intensely negative event or series of events. But dealing with trauma is far from simple, particularly for those who also struggle with drug or alcohol addiction. Trauma may be more common than you think, and this post aims at shedding light on how and why trauma occurs, what the long-term effects of trauma are, and how you can deal with these effects in a healthy way. The main questions that this post addresses are:
- What is trauma?
- What are the long-term effects of trauma?
- How is trauma related to addiction and the recovery process?
- How can you deal with the long-term effects of trauma?
Before continuing, it is well worth noting that the best way to deal with trauma is to seek out professional help. While this overview can provide you with some basic understanding regarding what trauma is and how it affects people, fully dealing with trauma does not end with reading a blog post in the Internet. If you have experienced trauma (either recently or in the past) we highly recommend that you see a counselor about your experience. As the brief guide below highlights, talking to someone can be one of the best ways to deal with the long-term effects of trauma. The healthiest thing you can do for yourself and for your future is to seek out the help you need to deal with trauma, addiction, or both.
The Main Question: What is Trauma?
There is not just one kind of trauma that affects everyone the same way and according to the same processes. Instead, trauma can take different forms – sometimes it is a one-time event that holds long-lasting effects on the brain, and other times trauma can be repeated exposure to experiences that make it difficult for individuals to appropriately handle emotions, interactions. “Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with PTSD, but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event, developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.” ~ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration While the quote above may appear academic, the main point is clear: trauma affects everyone differently, depending on both the circumstances and their personality. The extent and effects of trauma can vary dramatically depending on the kind of event that spurred the trauma. Some of the most common sources of trauma are:
- Seeing or experiencing domestic violence
- Experiencing natural disasters
- Undergoing severe illness or injury
- Being a victim of rape
- Witnessing the death of a family member or close friend
- Seeing or experiencing a specific act of violence
Events or series of events like the ones outlined above can lead to both emotional and physical symptoms, often over a long period of time. Some may respond emotionally and physically to a traumatic event right away, while others may be numbed to its effect until many years later. Either way, there is no question that traumatic events have a profound impact on both the mind and the body. In turn, this impact affects behavior, emotions, and relationships, and can even serve as a precursor to drug addiction or alcohol abuse. The specific long-term effects discussed below make it clear that trauma is serious, and must be treated that way.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Trauma?
Traumatic events often trigger both physical and emotional responses in those who experience them. While many of these symptoms of trauma can occur over a long period of time, they do not necessarily last a lifetime in those who have experienced trauma. If you are able to get the help you need outlined in this post, many of the long-term effects of trauma can be overcome. To help you identify what trauma looks like in daily life, here is a list of some of the most common emotional and physical symptoms of trauma:
- Denial of the traumatic event or events
- Developing numbness to the trauma (detaching emotions from thoughts and actions)
- Extreme anger or sadness
- Emotional outbursts (emotional dysregulation)
- Experiencing shame as a response to the trauma
- Somatic symptoms (physical responses, like shaking)
- Sleep problems and insomnia
- Breathing problems
- Gastrointestinal problems
- High blood pressure or cardiovascular disorders
- Substance abuse disorders
- Development of PTSD
“Those suffering from PTSD can have trouble functioning in their jobs or personal relationships. Children can be traumatized and have difficult in school, become isolated from others and develop phobias. Many people with PTSD repeatedly experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects that remind them of the trauma.” – American Psychological Association One of the major manifestations of the stress and anxiety caused by trauma is the development of PTSD, a specific mental disorder that has both emotional and physical symptoms. No matter the personal response, it is clear that the long-term effects of trauma are far reaching. They can affect your attachment to and relationships with others, your physical health, how you respond to emotional situations, the way you perceive yourself and your future, and even the way you process information and new experiences. While these long-term effects of trauma are certainly serious, the good news is they can be effectively managed with proper counseling and in conjunction with addiction treatment.
How is Trauma Related to Addiction and Recovery?
Like it or not, traumatic events and the long-term effects that these events have on an individual can serve as a catalyst for substance abuse and other mental disorders. Research has shown time and again that there is a strong relationship between individuals who have undergone a traumatic experience and those who use, abuse and are addicted to drugs and alcohol. In fact, at least one in every four people who experience trauma develops an addiction, sometimes as a direct response to the trauma. Trauma and addiction go hand in hand primarily because of the emotional impact, but that does not mean that they are insurmountable.
How To Deal With the Long-Term Effects of Trauma
It can be quite difficult to handle the long-term effects of trauma, particularly for individuals who are also struggling to overcome addiction or alcoholism. Thankfully, you do not have to go through this process alone. One of the cornerstones of addiction treatment is individual therapy and counseling. Getting one-on-one counseling is key to developing the coping strategies that you need to deal with the long-term effects of trauma and help you develop a plan for a happier, healthier, addiction-free life. “Most people will experience a trauma at some point in their lives, and as a result, some will experience debilitating symptoms that interfere with daily life. The good news is that psychological interventions are effective in preventing many long-term effects.” ~ American Psychological Association This type of therapy is available in both residential rehab and intensive outpatient addiction treatment programs. Through both individual counseling and group therapy sessions, these programs can help you overcome the effects of both trauma and addiction on your life. Some of the benefits in seeking out this approach include:
- The provision of a safe environment where traumatic events can be shared
- Identifying the first traumatic event and its effect on later life
- Identifying how the traumatic event is tied to emotional and physical responses, including addictive behaviors
- Exploring current support systems and how they can be used
- Becoming increasingly educated on the underlying mental and physical processes that cause a traumatic response
- Reinforcing that neither traumatic event nor the resulting response are your fault
- Building strategies and skills for coping with traumatic responses and associated addictive behaviors
Therapy can take many different forms, but all approaches have the same overarching goal: to process the traumatic event and, in some cases, the resulting addiction in a safe and healthy environment. One of the therapy approaches that has been shown to be very effective with both trauma and addiction treatment is EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This is a specific psychotherapy treatment option developed just in the last several decades. “EMDR is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.” ~ The EMDR Institute The idea behind this approach is that mental dysfunctions are grounded in physical processes, and that these dysfunctions can be overcome by reorienting the physical motions. In layman’s terms, this form of psychotherapy allows individuals to alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with traumatic memories. This, in turn, can decrease dependency on substance use for those who have experienced trauma. EMDR is just one therapeutic approach that shows the long-term effects and symptoms of both trauma and addiction can be effectively managed. If anything that is mentionable can be manageable, then the long-term effects of trauma and associated addictions can be overcome. From understanding what causes the symptoms associated with a traumatic event to actively engaging in the therapy necessary to help you work through these effects, the key is to actively take steps toward overcoming the impact that trauma has had on your life. It may be a slow process, but it is beyond worth it. If you have a story or thought to share regarding the long-term effects of trauma and how to deal with it, or if you still have questions, feel free to leave a comment below.