The Link Between Trauma and Female Addiction


Female addiction treatment has evolved over the last few decades. With an increased understanding of what causes women to abuse alcohol and drugs, treatment professionals have a better understanding of how to treat them. In the past, focus was placed solely on the addiction, with the assumption that other problems would be resolved during rehab or be treated by a psychological professional down the road. Today, treatment is a much more holistic endeavor, and, as a result, it’s become apparent that trauma plays a significant role in female addiction.

When the Past Affects the Present

While the word tends to conjure images of war and destruction, trauma is an emotional response to any distressing event, such as rape, an accident or a natural disaster.[1] You don’t have to personally experience a traumatic event to suffer its effects; witnessing it can be just as detrimental. Furthermore, a trauma can be more passive in nature, such as experiencing neglect or stigmatization related to gender, sexual orientation, race or poverty.

What makes trauma so destructive is that the impact of abuse, neglect, disaster, war and other harmful experiences can linger long after the event has ended. With most or all of the senses involved, the sensations end up getting recorded and stored in the brain, potentially leaving deep psychological scars. After experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, it’s quite typical for people to suffer from varying degrees of stress, depression, anxiety and in severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One of the most important advancements in female addiction treatment is the recognition that a history of traumatic experiences plays an often-unacknowledged role in a woman’s physical and mental health issues. Research now shows that the majority of addicted women have suffered trauma or abuse at some point in their lives, and historically at higher rates and often more intensely than men.[2],[3] It’s clear that these experiences drastically increase the likelihood that a woman will abuse alcohol and drugs.[4],[5]

 

How Women React to Trauma

When an individual experiences a traumatic event, it ends up forming a deep wound in the psyche, becoming etched in the memory and wreaking havoc if not addressed. Some people recognize the negative effects and try to ignore them while others don’t even realize damage was done. While women are similar to men in responding to trauma with anger and dissociation, females experience depression and anxiety more frequently.[6] Additionally, whereas men have a stronger response to being victims of trauma as opposed to being witnesses, women have similar psychological responses in both scenarios.

What makes trauma particularly difficult for women is the fact that their experiences are often perpetrated by people they know. This accounts for the increase in mental health problems for women because it’s especially distressing to experience harm by a person who is supposed to love and care for you. According to recent statistics, 25 percent of women have been the victim of severe physical violence from a partner and 90 percent of female child sexual abuse victims knew the perpetrator in some way, with 68 percent of these girls being abused by a family member.[7]

An infographic stating that 80 percent of victims of intimate partner violence are women.

Also complicating the issue is a woman’s propensity to blame herself after being abused, believing that she is responsible for her abuser’s behavior, which often leads to self-loathing.[7] Her trauma also has a greater likelihood of developing into PTSD, with studies showing women are more than twice as likely to develop the disorder than men. This may cause them to:

  • Re-experience the event through nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoid people or things that remind them of the event
  • Become estranged
  • Feel numb
  • Be hypervigilant
  • Have exaggerated startle responses

When Trauma Gets More Troubling

Years of avoidance, denial and/or meditation don’t always “fix” what has been altered in the brain. To cope with depression, stress or anger, many fall into unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking or doing drugs. This generally results from the need to self-medicate in an attempt to ease their symptoms. Drugs and alcohol become numbing agents or tools of avoidance for women dealing with past trauma or for those diagnosed with PTSD. To escape the memories and pain of the experience, she may use these mind-altering substances and unknowingly become addicted, making her problems worse.

“Once women start down the path of addiction, they tend to progress more rapidly than men.”

While men resort to addictive behaviors to escape and distance themselves from the realities of their lives, female addiction is often a means of maintaining a relationship, filling a void or self-medicating the pain of abuse or betrayal.[8] And once women start down the path of addiction, they tend to progress more rapidly than men, which is likely the result of the distinct challenges they face as a gender. In 2004, the United Nations published a study on the treatment of drug-addicted women around the world and found that many of the issues addicted women struggle with are shared universally, namely:[9]

An illustration of the world map.
By Joowwww [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Shame and stigma
  • Physical and sexual abuse
  • Fear of losing children
  • Fear of losing a partner
  • Lack of childcare services
  • Lack of services for women
  • Lack of financial resources
  • Lack of sober housing
  • Poorly coordinated services
  • Long wait lists

Studies also show that women who abuse alcohol or drugs are less likely to seek help. Practical concerns such as child-care arrangements, lack of support, lower income and responsibilities at home and work make the female’s path to treatment especially trying. And while both men and women have the task of overcoming the stigma associated with seeking treatment, women are even more susceptible to being stigmatized, creating yet another barrier to getting the help they need.

Moving Past Trauma and Addiction

It’s important to remember that trauma is subjective, deemed as such by the individual’s internal beliefs and his or her innate sensitivity to stress – not someone else’s perspective. However, it’s not always easy to see that there’s a problem. Regardless of when the experience took place, you can help yourself or your loved one overcome trauma and addiction by keeping the following in mind:

Ways to Overcome Trauma

Safety

Help yourself or your loved one secure physical, mental, emotional and relationship safety. First, you must be sure you or your loved one’s physical body is no longer in danger by removing yourself or her from the abusive relationship or use of substances. Mental safety involves having a more realistic view of oneself and the world, while emotional safety includes seeking help for emotional issues to increase emotional awareness and stability. Relationship safety often consists of creating boundaries in relationships to make them healthier.

Nutrition

Regularly eating healthy foods and drinking water is essential to overcoming the effects of trauma, especially if you’re dealing with addiction. Good nutrition is critical for both physical and mental health over the short and long term. In addition, individuals dealing with trauma or addiction often neglect their nutritional needs, resulting in a variety of physical and mental health consequences. Improving nutrition can be an important part of the recovery process from traumatic experiences and substance abuse.

Sleep

Without an adequate amount of sleep, the human body has a more difficult time rejuvenating or overcoming the effects of stress and trauma. In fact, sleep deprivation is so detrimental that it has been used as a particularly effective form of torture for centuries, breaking down an individual’s will and self-worth. Don’t torture yourself by not getting adequate sleep each day. Even if you’re unable to sleep through the night at first, resting goes a long way in restoring calmness. Eventually, sleep can aid the body’s restorative powers.

Physical Activity

While it may feel like the last thing you want to do when dealing with the effects of trauma or addiction, engaging in physical exercise is a helpful way to handle stress and begin healing. Vigorous exercise also releases endorphins, causing you to feel a “runner’s high,” the same sensation of euphoria that accompanies a chemical high. In fact, a study of patients in treatment for substance abuse found that physical exercise can lead to a sense of accomplishment and increased confidence in staying sober.[10] Whether it’s walking, hiking or yoga, experiment with some options and try to make it a regular habit.

Sharing

Whether you’ve been denying or ignoring the painful experience for years, or you are the type who just needs to get things off your chest, talking and listening to others can do wonders for your mental well-being after trauma. Reach out to someone you trust and talk about what occurred in your life, or be there to listen to your loved one about what they experienced. You can mention your own experiences and discuss what worked for you. Avoid being judgmental or forcing your ideas, but rather, be a source of encouragement.

Patience

After a traumatic event, you or your loved one can suffer the effects long after the experience. If the event happened recently, remember that it’s important to pace yourself before jumping back into daily life, and allow sufficient time to recover. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with the residual effects of a long-passed experience, remember that the psychological scars will take time to heal – but they will if you devote time and effort to it.

When Treatment is Needed

A woman feeling down while talking to a psychologist. Treatment professionals note that trauma alone can be a seriously complex and complicated process. Add drugs and alcohol to the mix and the situation can become even more fragile, especially for women who can progress quickly into addiction. If you or a loved one have been struggling to overcome an upsetting experience and settled into the quicksand of addiction, look for a treatment facility that specializes in treating patients with trauma and substance abuse.

Many rehabilitation facilities offer a trauma-informed approach, which is designed to be both preventive and rehabilitative in nature, noting and addressing the relationship among environment, triggers and perceived dangers.[11] Based on an understanding of the vulnerabilities of trauma survivors, which may be exacerbated by traditional service delivery approaches, trauma-informed programs can be more supportive and avoid re-traumatization.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s concept of a trauma-informed approach, a program, organization or system that is trauma-informed:

  • Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery
  • Recognizes signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff and others involved with the system
  • Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices
  • Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization

It’s important to be aware that there is no limit on the length of time it takes to heal after experiencing trauma. Each person is different and responds according to her own capabilities. The effectiveness of treatment for trauma and female addiction largely depends on the kind and amount of support she receives during and after treatment. Attending 12-step meetings can further assist in sustaining recovery after completion of treatment.

Stress and trauma are debilitating enough without the additional complications of substance abuse. While it may seem easier to simply ignore the pain and keep self-medicating, the fact is that seeking professional help doesn’t have to be difficult. Utilizing a trauma-informed approach, Unity Behavioral Health can put you on the path to lasting recovery. Specializing in substance abuse, mental illness and dual diagnosis, our experts combine traditional and holistic methods for a comprehensive approach to addiction treatment. Start healing today by contacting us today.

[1] http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1586137/
[3] http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/women/trauma.aspx
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9134941
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9337502
[6] http://www.nccdglobal.org/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/understanding-trauma.pdf
[7] https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/women/women-trauma-and-ptsd.asp
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19248396
[9] https://www.unodc.org/pdf/report_2004-08-30_1.pdf
[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3224086/
[11] https://www.samhsa.gov/samhsaNewsLetter/Volume_22_Number_2/trauma_tip/