There has been much research showing that traumatic experiences are associated with substance abuse, mental health problems, and other risky behaviors. An early traumatic experience can increase the risk of substance use disorders for some reasons including but not limited to manage distress, self-medicate, or to dampen mood symptoms associated with a dysregulated biological stress response. Estimates are as high as 75% of individuals in substance abuse treatment have a history of trauma.
Trauma has become a commonly used word utilized by the general public to describe a very stressful event. The definition of trauma is in fact relatively broad and what constitutes a traumatic event can be wide ranging. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as "an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea." Trauma responses can result from a single incident i.e. hurricane, crime, or prolonged/chronic experiences i.e. child abuse, battering relationships. Whether an event is traumatic depends on both the experience of the survivor and how the person responds to trauma. So two people can experience the same event, and one be traumatized and the other not.
It is important to address trauma when getting treatment for substance abuse. Acknowledging history of trauma, the signs and symptoms of trauma, and the role it has played in their life is essential and is known as a trauma informed approach. It is important to acknowledge a history of trauma and process the trauma and the impact the trauma has had in an individual's life. Of course, a therapist must first ensure that the individual has the coping skills to manage the distress that might occur as a result of bringing up the trauma. Also, trauma treatment should be paced based on the client. Asking for permission to talk about the trauma, and then following the client's lead is helpful in trauma treatment. One goal, of course, is not to re-traumatize someone.
Dr. Rachel Needlehas specialized training in the area of substance abuse. She is a professional consultant to substance abuse facilities and assists them in expanding and enhancing clinical programming. Dr. Needle also does expert training for staff members at residential and outpatient facilities that specialize in alcohol and substance abuse.
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