Types of Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic Experiences

What is Trauma?

Trauma is the psychological and emotional effects of an extremely stressful event that shatters our sense of security and leaves us feeling hopeless. Psychological trauma causes people to struggle with upsetting emotions, anxiety, and thoughts that won’t go away. It also leaves people feeling disconnected, numb, and lacking the ability to trust others. 

Traumatic experiences can be caused by an extreme threat to one’s safety or life. Still, any situation leaving someone feeling isolated and overwhelmed could result in trauma, even if it doesn’t include physical harm. It is not the external circumstances that determine if an event is traumatic but personal emotional experiences. The more helpless and frightened someone feels, the more likely they are to feel traumatic effects.

Psychological and emotional trauma can be caused by: 

  • One-time events – Including an injury, accident, or violent attacks, usually if happened accidentally or during childhood.
  • Ongoing stress – This can occur for people living in a rough neighborhood, battling illnesses, or experiencing other repeated traumatic events like domestic violence, bullying, or childhood neglect.
  • Common neglected causes – Including surgery, the sudden death of a loved one, a relationship break up, a humiliating or disappointing experience, or someone’s consistent cruelty.

Coping with trauma caused by human-made or natural disasters can also present many challenges, even if you weren’t directly involved. It is unlikely someone will become the victim of a plane crash or mass shooting but we still see it on TV. While they may just be news reports or social media posts, these can still have an impact on a person.

Trauma is the psychological and emotional effects of an extremely stressful event.

To view these images continuously can overwhelm one’s nervous system, which can create traumatic stress. Frequently people who have experienced a traumatic event will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, which could lead to addiction. Regardless of what caused so much drama, or whether it happened yesterday or years ago, with the proper treatment, help is possible.

Common Responses and Trauma

Responses to traumatic events include:

Emotional signs:

  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Shame

These may cause:

  • Emotional outbursts
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Relationship issues

Physical symptoms:

  • Altered 
  • Dizziness
  • Appetite fluctuations
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches
  • Nausea

Psychological disorders:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Substance misuse problems

Types of Trauma

Sexual assault or abuse – Performed or attempted sexual contact, exposed at an early age to sexual environments or material, sexual exploitation, coercive, or unwanted sexual contact.

Physical assault or abuse – Performed or attempted physical pain infliction with or without using a weapon or object and including severe corporal discipline.

Emotional or psychological abuse – Abuse against a minor child, other than sexual or physical abuse that caused conduct, affective, cognitive, or other mental disturbance. This emotional abuse can affect a child’s performance and could have lead to disturbing behavior or negative self-image. 

Neglect – Negligence by the child victim’s caretaker to implement required, age-appropriate care, although financially able, or by offering financial means to do so (physical, medical etc.)

Serious accident or illness/Medical procedure – Accidental injury or circumstance, suffering from physical illness, or undergoing medical procedures that are very painful or life-threatening.

Witnessing domestic violence – Exposure to emotional abuse, sexual or physical assault, or threatening control executed between a guardian and other adults in the juvenile victim’s living environment. 

Victim or witness to community violence – Extreme violence in the community like vulnerability to gang-related violence.

School violence – Violence at school, including bullying, school shootings, interpersonal violence between classmates, and suicide of a classmate.

Natural or human-made disasters – Major disaster or accident as an unintentional result of a natural or human-made or event.

Forced displacement – Forced relocation to a different home because of political reasons, including political asylees or foreigners escaping political persecution.

War/Terrorism/Political violence – Acts of war/terrorism/political violence, like shooting, bombing, looting, or accidents occurring from terrorist actions and behaviors.

Witness or victim to severe personal or interpersonal violence – Includes severe violence due to or between individuals, including witness to suicide, homicide, and other comparable extreme events.

Traumatic separation or grief – Passing of a parent, sibling, primary caretaker, or someone close to you. Unexplained, or unspecified detachment from a parent, primary caretaker or sibling due to factors beyond the child victims.

System-induced trauma – Traumatic departure from the home, traumatic foster situation, sibling detachment, or various placements quickly.

Trauma Symptoms

Individuals who’ve suffered childhood traumatic experience a wide range of side effects, both behavioral and psychological. Sometimes the mind tries to cope with trauma by encasing it but the events symptoms still present themselves.

Symptoms caused by a traumatic experience include:

  • Avoiding things that are a remembrance of the traumatic experience
  • Continuously reliving the event
  • Dramatic mood shifts
  • Eating disorder
  • Erratic behavior
  • Excessive displays of emotions
  • Lack of confidence
  • Ongoing nervousness, fear, or anxiety
  • Problems relating to others in your professional life
  • Prolong irritability or agitation
  • Social and romantic relationship issues

People who sustained a traumatic experience during their childhood years are also at a higher risk of developing an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

A Closer Look at How Trauma Affects Our Brain

The human brain is such a unique and adaptive muscle. Due to a trait known as plasticity, the human brain can respond and adjust to anything we experience in our lifetime. This technique operates in every single part of our life, it allows us to learn new skills and make new memories.

Everything people do, both good and sinful, is because of the brain’s neurons. It allows us to change, grow, and even develop to make the necessary adjustments to keep humans functioning. A person’s brain abilities allow patients suffering from traumatic head injuries to relearn how to walk or talk. The brain can also rewire itself to allow humans to continue functioning.

But what does all this have to do with trauma and addiction recovery? How can childhood trauma influence adulthood? Plasticity is the reason why things people experience in childhood can usually follow into adolescence and adulthood. These experiences shape how people behave, think, and react to situations and others. There is a special connection between childhood trauma and drug and alcohol addiction.

Trauma and Addiction

The relationship between childhood trauma and substance addiction occurs due to childhood trauma and abuse that causes brain structure irregularities. These irregularities cause many problems with thought and behavior. Elevated cortisol levels and other stress hormones linked to childhood trauma can prevent normal brain development.

Trauma can also create a variety of long-term mental health disorders, including PTSD. It is estimated that 2/3 of all people suffering from substance addiction had also experienced some form of childhood trauma. These people may also imitate substance misuse and self-medicating behaviors they’ve witnessed from loved ones when they were children. These issues could lead people to self medicate, which implements the basis for the link between trauma and substance addiction. Fortunately, help is available in the form of therapy.

Dual Diagnosis for PTSD and Addiction

A co-occurring disorder occurs when someone is dealing with both a mental illness and substance misuse (In this case PTSD and addiction). Co-occurring disorders are prevalent in military veterans (roughly 35%-75% of veterans with PTSD have been known to self medicate with drugs)l.  Although PTSD is usually associated with military veterans, it can happen to anyone. People who have PTSD use drugs and alcohol to regulate their trauma symptoms or to control their triggers, which include:

  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Social withdrawal

Depending on the symptoms, people with trauma could decide to cure themselves with drug and alcohol use disorder. However, this does not work. It can also eventually lead to substance tolerance, which can worsen their symptoms. This cycle ends up promoting the link between trauma and addiction.

Anyone suffering from mental health and substance use disorders has a dual diagnosis, including people with severe anxiety, schizophrenia, and depression. To treat a PTSD and substance addiction dual diagnosis, therapists must address both the underlying trauma and addiction. It is also crucial to treat both trauma and addiction simultaneously. This helps to get to the underlying triggers and help patients get back on the road to recovery.

The Importance of Treating Addiction Caused by Trauma

A comprehensive addiction treatment program will begin with detox to purge the body of drugs and alcohol in a medically supervised environment. From there, a team of treatment specialists will focus on a custom behavioral health plan. Next, with thorough collaboration and trust, patients can move past their trauma and addiction. With therapy and learning coping mechanisms besides self-medicating, patients will start to feel empowered and stable once again.

Although trauma is a part of the past, it does not have to define the future. At Sana Lake Recovery, we offer the tools needed to live a better and healthier life down the line. By treating trauma and addiction simultaneously, patients have the best chance of lifetime recovery and health.

Getting Help for Trauma

If you or a loved one is suffering from the effects of trauma, Sana Lake Recovery may be able to help. Our treatment specialists have experience in treating different types of trauma and addiction. Although trauma has taken over your life since the event, it doesn’t have to any longer. Contact us today for more information on treatment options and addiction resources

Article Reviewed by David Sherman, MD

David Sherman, MD is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (FASAM) and board certified in Addiction Medicine with the American Board of Preventive Medicine. He is a native Missourian and graduated medical school at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. Dr. Sherman completed a two-year fellowship in Addiction Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He leads a highly trained staff of master level certified addiction professionals. Men and women from all over Missouri and the United States come to Sana Lake Recovery Center to get the care they need and deserve.