Emotional Trauma–One Root Cause of Addiction

common alcohol withdrawal symptomsEmotional trauma is a root cause of addiction for many people. This has become apparent in the histories and co-occurring problems of people in treatment for addictions. For example, the population at large has just about an 8% rate of having been physically abused as children. However, people with alcoholism appear to have much higher rates such as 24% of alcoholic men and 33% of alcoholic women are thought to have had childhood physical abuse. It is also thought that people who have suffered childhood emotional, sexual abuse and other forms of maltreatment are also more likely to become addicted than others who have not.

What is Emotional Trauma?

Trauma is any adverse event or situation that overwhelms one’s ability to cope. It is a subjective experience, meaning something that traumatizes me may not traumatize you. Consequently, we cannot define trauma by what happens to a person. We know someone has been traumatized by their reactions instead. Any type of trauma involves the emotions and can technically be considered an emotionally traumatic event or situation. A fundamental definition of trauma involves feelings of intense fear or terror and helplessness. Those feelings are certainly very emotional experiences.

What Types of Things are Traumatic?

A person may have a traumatic reaction to any number of things that induce intense fear (or terror) and helplessness. It may be abuse, neglect or abandonment, for example, or witnessing violence, being the victim of violence, or being in an accident or in a natural disaster. Living in a family fraught with conflict, untreated addiction or untreated mental illness can be traumatic. Living in a crime riddled community certainly can. Again, it is the individual’s reactions to events rather than the events themselves that determine whether someone is traumatic.

Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Trauma

Depression, anxiety and compulsive behaviors such as problematic substance use are common signs and symptoms of emotional trauma. Others include:

  • Withdrawal, social isolation
  • Difficulty forming sustained close relationships
  • Low self-esteem, poor self-worth and lack of confidence
  • Difficulty identifying, managing and expressing emotions
  • Poor interpersonal boundaries
  • Difficulty identifying, establishing and accomplishing healthy life goals
  • Toxic shame, guilt and feelings of humiliation
  • Difficulty asserting one’s needs, desires, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and opinions

Substances to Self-Soothe

Among other uses, compulsive behavior like problematic substance use can be an attempt to self-soothe for people who have emotional trauma. Drinking or using drugs can be a ‘go to’ strategy that can temporarily reduce anxiety, boost confidence, make social dealings easier and the like. However, these are ‘band-aid’ solutions. Healthier, more effective ones would involve skill building to cope without substances or other self-sabotaging strategies.