Trauma and addiction are connected

June is National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month. Rich Goddard, a registered nurse and trauma specialized clinical counselor at Addiction Recovery Care (ARC), is sharing how trauma can impact an individual’s struggle with substance use – and that healing is within reach.

Approximately 12 million adults live with post-traumatic stress (PTS) nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. While PTS is often associated with war, it can occur after experiencing any severe trauma or life-threatening event, including homelessness, domestic violence, a motor vehicle crash, divorce, abandonment or watching a loved one overdose.

“We probably all know someone who has experienced trauma, whether it be a severe or mild case. As a PTS survivor myself, I know that it can leave you feeling isolated and hopeless,” said Goddard. “When a sight, sound or situation triggers trauma from the past, people with PTS may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope and over time come to depend on them.”

Following a traumatic event, PTS and substance use disorder (SUD) often co-occur. Individuals who misuse drugs or alcohol put themselves in high-risk situations where the risk of a traumatic experience increases, creating an endless cycle of trauma exposure.

Research shows that people with PTS are more at-risk for substance use disorders, and for those pursuing recovery from SUD, trauma can make sustained recovery more challenging. In a 2023 study of 40 individuals, 67.5% met criteria for full clinical PTSD, and 32.5% met criteria for subclinical PTSD. The study also identified that 91.7% engaged in nonprescription opioid abuse.

In a larger randomized study of 343 women with SUD and PTSD, almost all (94.5%) received at least one substance dependence diagnosis and the remaining 5.5% met substance abuse criteria. Most participants (93.3%) reported at least one type of childhood trauma.

Research also supports PTSD in military males with trauma. A 2014 study of 1,254 post deployment males found that 46.3% identified childhood trauma and 24.3% reported multiple childhood traumas. The data supported previous research identifying comorbidity of trauma and increased mental health symptoms.

“If you are starting treatment for a substance use disorder and have experienced trauma in the past, overwhelming images, actions, feelings and emotions that have been masked by drugs or alcohol can begin to surface,” added Goddard. “This is normal and a first step to healing.”

Despite trauma’s ability to disconnect us from ourselves and each other, Goddard says healing comes when those connections are replaced with healthier behaviors. Research has consistently shown that with treatment, outcomes and healing from PTSD or other trauma improve.

“Hope, healing and restored health are all possible,” said Goddard. “At ARC, we take a unique approach to care and offer evidence-based treatment and personalized counseling. We stand ready to help our clients reach recovery from substance use disorders and work through underlying trauma. Long-term recovery is possible.”

In light of PTSD Awareness Month, Goddard is encouraging people to recognize the signs of PTS and respond with empathy and understanding. He gives these specific steps to help someone with PTS:

  1. Provide care by meeting people’s basic needs in regards to food, hydration and safety.
  2. Provide listening ears and allow others to move forward at their own pace.
  3. Provide self-care for yourself to prevent vicarious trauma exposure.
  4. Implement quiet, safe spaces and group guidelines to prevent retraumatization.
  5. Promote awareness by wearing teal shirts and ribbons during the month of June.
  6. Promote grounding and mindfulness exercises in groups and sessions.
  7. Utilize mobile apps including the PTSD Coach and PTSD Family Coach available in Apple and Google platforms free of charge. These apps provide clients and family members with coping skills to manage PTSD.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, call ARC’s 24/7 Addiction Help Hotline at (888) 520-8736.