Addiction: A Coping Mechanism for Trauma

Addiction is classified as a brain disease that is manifested by substance use despite the harmful consequences, and can often be a coping mechanism for trauma. An individual may turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism for unresolved trauma or stress, physical ailments and other issues, but is not exclusive to substance use. Addiction can also present itself in the form of a process addiction, which is a compulsion to obsessively engage in a harmful behavior, such as compulsive gambling, sexual promiscuity, over-eating or any other compulsion-driven behavior.

Coping mechanisms are habits formed over time that serve to help an individual manage a particular mental issue. It is important to understand that not all coping mechanisms are harmful or maladaptive. However, substance use is both.

For many people, years of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol have effectively muted the memory of trauma or stress. So, the only problem to them seems to be substance use and addiction. It’s important to acknowledge that people who suppress or ignore traumatic experience can work extremely hard to get sober and stay sober, only to find that their addictive behaviors eventually replace the substance they are using. Drugs and alcohol can provide a temporary relief from an individual’s reality.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

The brain responds to substance use based on a variety of different factors, such as the type and amount of drugs used, the tolerance level and the frequency of use. If someone uses cocaine, they will immediately feel euphoric because cocaine is psychoactive and impacts the area of the brain that controls pleasure. When a psychoactive substance is introduced to the brain, it disrupts the normal functionality, production and reabsorption of its chemical transmissions. Serotonin and dopamine are released. Sometimes, a natural tranquilizer, GABA may also become overstimulated by drug use.

The more often someone uses a drug, the more tolerant his or her body becomes to the drug. The central nervous system (CNS) functions like blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rates and body temperature are also affected by substance use. Depressants slow CNS activity down while stimulants increase it. With repeated substance use, the brain becomes more and more dependent on drugs and alcohol to remain balanced. Users will begin to feel challenging withdrawal symptoms once the substance wears off. This is when substance use becomes compulsive and addiction becomes uncontrollable. Users begin losing control of how much and how often they use.

Addiction begins to have a powerful grip on an individual, and that person will begin acting in unrecognizable ways. When someone becomes consumed with using a substance to maintain his or her habit, the cost of using becomes more and more expensive. When a habit becomes more expensive than someone’s paycheck, he or she will resort to illegal and immoral ways to maintain that habit.

Very similarly, other compulsive behaviors can also increase the pleasure-inducing chemicals produced by the brain under the influence of drugs and alcohol. These include binge-eating, shopping, playing video games, sex and gambling. With prolonged repetition, these processes can have the same effects on the brain as an addiction to drugs and alcohol. These behavioral addictions are initially used as tools for managing stress and depression—as a coping mechanism.

Co-Occurring Disorders and Trauma

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), between 50-66% of individuals suffering from addiction also suffer from mental health conditions. For adults, PTSD can display in a variety of mental health issues such as insomnia, depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Untreated and undiagnosed PTSD can really disrupt someone’s life—making it difficult to go through daily routines. This can include someone’s professional life, relationships and social life. PTSD is more often diagnosed in adult survivors of childhood trauma, especially in women. For women who have experienced both sexual and physical abuse, the likelihood of PTSD is doubled.

Using drugs and alcohol can be a form of self-medication for an undiagnosed or unresolved trauma and mental illness, providing temporary relief for the challenging and echoing symptoms. Addiction can become a coping mechanism for emotional and physical ailments. Eventually, the withdrawal symptoms that accompany addiction can exacerbate mental illness symptoms like insomnia, anxiety and depression. In the long run, substance use only makes mental health issues worse and makes recovery all the more, difficult.

Substance use and addiction are closely related with stress and trauma. When someone feels stressed, the brain changes in that the central nervous system responds with a “fight or flight” reaction. For some cases, this response may be healthy but for individuals who experience a high level of stress regularly are that much more vulnerable to become addicted and/or relapse. Overstimulated nerve activity and high levels of stress can make an individual want to use drugs and alcohol or engage in compulsive behaviors as a coping mechanism. The substance use and compulsive behavior may offer a temporary relief, but it is extremely short-lived in the case of addiction.

Healthy Coping Skills in Recovery

Individuals in recovery often find that there are coping mechanisms they have adopted over the years in response to our underlying mental health conditions and deep rooted stress. Some of these coping mechanisms are manipulative in nature and are dysfunctional and controlling. When we direct other people in toxic ways, it is often because we feel a fundamental sense of fear and we are trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt. Ultimately, these create even more levels of pain which we eventually have to recover from.

Professional help is optimal in healing behavioral implications to restore a healthy balance to the brain and creating healthier coping skills. Addiction and Dual Diagnosis treatment programs use behavioral therapies, medication and counseling to re-regulate brain chemistry. Relapse prevention tools, stress management and communication skills are improved when an individual admits to treatment.

Addiction treatment teaches individuals tools to manage cravings and handling triggers leading to relapse. There are several alternatives used as coping skills for addiction which are used in recovery to minimize relapse and give individuals a strong footing in long-term recovery.

Some alternative coping mechanisms used in recovery include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Breathwork
  • Grounding principals
  • Exercise
  • Journaling
  • Communication
  • Service work
  • Expressive artwork therapy
  • Spirituality

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by getting enough sleep, eating healthy and using healthy outlets to relieve stress and maintain in the present moment sustain abstinence in recovery. A healthy body is a foundation for a healthy mind. Sticking to a structured routine and ensure a healthy recovery.

Treating Addiction at HEAL Behavioral Health

If yourself or someone you know is struggling with trauma and addiction, reach out for help. HEAL Behavioral Health is staffed with knowledgeable and compassionate professionals that structure treatment expressly to fit an individual needs. This includes identifying co-occurring disorders and restructuring healthy coping mechanisms. We specialize in trauma treatment and in the treatment of chronic relapsers. With the right support, you can experience true and permanent healing. For more information, call us now at 888-491-HEAL (4325).