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The Correlation Between Trauma and Substance Use Among Women

Trauma and substance use disorder (SUD) are known to be linked. The connection has been studied in veterans who endured trauma during war, and it’s been found that traumatic experiences highly increase the chance of future substance misuse, abuse, and dependence. However, trauma comes in many forms, and certain populations are more at risk than others. Trauma can also look different in men and women. Understanding the nuance, risk factors, and connection between trauma and substance use requires a more in-depth look.

Trauma and Substance Use Risk Factors

A common misconception about trauma is that it only happens in a singular event, such as a car accident. While trauma can be caused by something quick and sudden, it can also occur over an extended period of time. Anything that dysregulates the nervous system can cause trauma and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use, and addiction. Being aware of the risk factors for trauma and substance use can help you protect yourself and your loved ones. It can also help you know if you may need to seek professional help in order to heal.

Socioeconomic Status

Living in a financially unstable situation can leave you craving safety and security, especially for children. Poverty can mean you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, if you’ll have a roof over your head tomorrow, or if you can afford to buy the things you need to live. That type of situation can be extremely stressful and anxiety-inducing.

Living in a low-economic household can also put you at risk for other adverse experiences that might cause trauma. For example, if your parent has to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, this can lead to child neglect. People below the poverty line are also more likely to engage in dangerous and illicit activities such as sex work and drug use.

It is important to remember that this is not because of some moral failing of the parents. They are likely trying to heal from their own trauma as a result of generational poverty and may turn to drugs or violence as unhealthy coping mechanisms. In most situations, parents are simply doing the best they can for themselves and their kids.

Unfortunately, poverty in itself can be traumatizing. If you are currently in low socioeconomic standing or were as a child, you’re at increased risk of trauma and substance use issues. Living with financial insecurity can cause feelings of shame, guilt, anger, anxiety, and depression that can be difficult to cope with. Substances can distract from these feelings or ease their effects, but using substances for an emotional reprieve can easily lead to dependence and addiction. Talking to someone about these feelings and getting professional help is a much healthier way of healing from poverty trauma.

Childhood Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues often begin to present themselves in childhood or adolescence, but parents can have a hard time identifying them. A parent might think that their child is unruly and prone to tantrums when really the child is experiencing a mood regulation disorder. Quiet and passive children are often brushed off as being “well-behaved,” but this could be a sign of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or an anxiety disorder. A child that “never sits still” and “has trouble focusing” may be struggling with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These mental health issues can go undiagnosed for years while they affect the child’s daily life.

An undiagnosed and untreated mental health condition can be a traumatic long-term experience for children. They might experience alienation from their peers and have trouble in school as a result. This can lead to feelings of shame and self-hatred. Depending on the disorder, they may be dealing with intense feelings of depression, hopelessness, anxiety, or disassociation. Experiencing these emotions for an extended period of time can teach the developing brain that it is constantly in some sort of danger or distress. This is how trauma can emerge from untreated mental health conditions.

Even if the condition is identified and treated later in life, the effects of childhood trauma can linger into adulthood. If you experienced an undiagnosed mental health condition in your developmental years, you’re more likely to use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use as an adult. It’s important to treat the underlying trauma as well as the condition itself for the best chance at recovery.

Parental Mental Health Issues

Just as experiencing a mental health condition can cause trauma and substance use issues, watching a parental figure experience one can as well. It can be especially hard when there is a lack of education surrounding mental health in the home.

A parent exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety can be a scary experience for a child that doesn’t understand what’s happening. Children take hints from their parent’s behavior to know when there is a potential danger. The symptoms of a mental health issue may be loud and upsetting, and they might tell the child that there is some sort of danger present. If symptoms become violent or aggressive, the child may even feel in danger from their parent. All of this can dysregulate the nervous system and cause trauma for the child.

Having a parent with a serious mental illness can also cause social shame because of mental health stigma. The child may feel like their family is broken or that their parent’s behavior reflects on them. Without education and therapeutic intervention, these feelings can follow them for the rest of their life and lead them to use substances to cope.

Neglect or Abuse

Instances of neglect and abuse are painfully common in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), at least one in seven children experience neglect or abuse in the home. This is likely an underestimate because of how many cases go unreported and unnoticed.

Neglect and abuse are highly likely to cause trauma, especially in children. Children rely on adults, such as their parents, to take care of them and protect them from harm. When adults neglect that duty, children are left to feel uncared for, unloved, and unsafe. If an adult inflicts mental, emotional, or physical harm on a child, that expectation is subverted, leaving the child confused, hurt, and traumatized. Children are so often victims of abuse because they are seen as easy targets who are less likely to remember and understand what is happening to them. However, even if they don’t remember or understand the event, it can affect them acutely into adulthood and throughout their lives.

If you experienced neglect or abuse as a child, adolescent, or adult, you are at increased likelihood to develop SUD. Therapy is often necessary to process the trauma of neglect and abuse. It can be a long and uncomfortable process, but healing is possible without substances.

Exposure to Violence and Dangerous Behaviors

Violence can present itself to children in many forms. Domestic violence between parents, physical abuse, witnessing a violent attack, and intense bullying at school are all examples of potentially traumatizing events. It’s important to remember that what may not be traumatizing to an adult can be traumatizing to a child because their brains are in an impressionable developmental stage.

Gang violence and activity, in particular, are connected to substance use and abuse. This is because drug use is highly normalized in organized crime environments. Many gangs control and distribute illegal substances in order to make money. Children whose parents or guardians are involved in gangs often become introduced to gang activity at a young age. They may even be expected to participate in gang activity when they are old enough. Along with substance use, gangs often take part in violent, criminal, and dangerous behavior, which can cause trauma.

While children cannot be shielded from all violence in the world, they can be prepared and given the tools to process upsetting emotions. Conversations surrounding violence can be challenging, but they are often necessary. If you are a parent of a young child, try having those tough discussions about things like sexual assault, gun violence, and bullying. Giving your child the language to talk about these issues and the healthy thought patterns to consider them will make them mentally safer in the long run.

Connecting Trauma and Substance Use

Trauma and substance use are connected for two main reasons: one is that substance use is a coping mechanism for trauma; the other is that trauma risk factors and substance use risk factors often occur in the same environments/situations.

Substance Use as Coping Mechanism

Coping mechanisms, as defined in the book Coping Mechanisms by Emad B. Algorani and Vikas Gupta, are “thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations.” These mechanisms can be healthy or unhealthy depending on how they affect the user and their mental health. You probably use coping mechanisms even if you don’t realize it. For example, when you take a deep breath after a particularly difficult or frustrating conversation, you’re utilizing a coping mechanism. Deep breaths can regulate your heart rate and blood pressure and help you feel calm and grounded.

Substances can also be used as a coping mechanism. The effects of many substances can be relaxing to the individual or cause dissociation from emotions and reality. If you are trying to avoid traumatizing memories or situations and the feelings associated with them, being under the influence can help you do so.

However, substance use is not a healthy way to cope with trauma. Traumatic memories must be confronted and processed in order to heal from them. Dissociating or distracting yourself from the memories is only a way to suppress the negative emotions and avoid that confrontation. If you use substances to cope with trauma, you are probably doing more harm to your mental health instead of healing it.

Another reason why substances shouldn’t be used to cope with trauma is that they can lead to dependence and addiction. If you’re using a chemically addictive substance (for example, cocaine), your brain and body will begin to crave the chemicals. This can happen after just one use. Even if the substance isn’t chemically addictive (for example, marijuana), you can become psychologically dependent on the effects of the substances. Both of these situations can lead to addiction and SUD.

Overlapping Risk Factors

All of the aforementioned risk factors for trauma are also risk factors for substance use. In homes where substance use issues are present and modeled in parental figures, there are likely other potentially traumatizing factors at play. Substance misuse also has a genetic component, meaning that if your parents struggled with SUD, you are more likely to as well.

Trauma and substance use feed into each other and can create a harmful cycle in a person’s life. You can use substances to cope with trauma, but substance abuse itself can be a traumatizing experience. When you use substances, you are also more likely to engage in dangerous behavior that can cause additional trauma. This is why addiction is often a cyclical disease and why relapses are so common after stressful or retraumatizing events.

It’s important to be able to recognize the signs of trauma in yourself and others to get help and protect from the effects of trauma and substance use issues. Some symptoms of trauma include:

  • Nightmares
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Exhaustion, especially after stressful situations
  • Heightened emotional reactions
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dissociation
  • Suppressing emotions
  • Engaging in activities associated with a stressful event (i.e., returning to the scene of the event)

Trauma and Substance Use in Women

Women in particular are vulnerable to the adverse side effects of traumatic experiences, especially substance abuse. The reason for this is unclear, but we know that the link between trauma and substance use in women is unique. There may simply be a biological difference in how women experience and process traumatic events.

It could also be because of the difference in the types of trauma men and women typically endure. Over half of women have experienced sexual abuse, such as assault and rape, and the perpetrators are almost always men. Being a victim of sexual violence as a woman is uniquely stigmatized. This could explain why so many traumatized women turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance use.

For women who have been victims of sexual violence, it may be hard to heal in environments where men are present. This is an understandable and valid feeling. You deserve a comfortable space to process and heal without being retraumatized. That’s why recovery centers specifically for women, like Avery Lane, are so important. Avery Lane provides a safe environment for women on their healing journeys to come together and find support.

Alcohol is a common substance to be abused by women who’ve endured trauma. Because alcohol is not a controlled substance and it is common in many social situations, alcoholism can be hard to spot. Here are some signs of alcoholism to look out for in yourself and others:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Craving alcohol
  • Drinking or the effects of it interfere with work, family, or school
  • Stopped doing hobbies or activities in order to drink more
  • Continued drinking even though it causes mental or physical health problems
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Having to drink more and more to feel the effects because of increased tolerance
  • Drinking even after being put in dangerous situations because of alcohol

However, women may also use other substances to cope with their trauma. Signs of drug abuse to look out for include:

  • Risk-taking
  • Neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Legal trouble
  • Changes in appetite
  • Engaging in secretive or suspicious behavior
  • Sudden changes in friends, hangout spots, or hobbies
  • Changes in personality
  • Sudden mood swings

When trauma and substance use are linked in a person’s life, additional symptoms can also arise. For example, they may be more inclined to use substances when reminded of the traumatizing event. The brain of a traumatized person may be hyperreactive to stress and anxiety, so any upsetting circumstances could make them crave substances. These symptoms are serious and should not be taken lightly. Dependence is often a slippery slope into addiction.

Trauma and substance abuse are deeply intertwined, and both require mental health intervention in order to heal. For women who struggle with trauma, substance use disorder (SUD), or both, Avery Lane is a safe space for you. We are ready and able to help you in your healing journey, no matter what it looks like. We can provide medically-assisted detox, residential treatment, therapy, outpatient care, and more. We understand the connection between trauma and substance abuse and the profound pain that women endure in these circumstances. If you’re hurting and in need of a safe, caring environment, Avery Lane is the place for you. Give us a call at (800) 270-2406 to learn more.

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