The Link Between Alcohol Addiction and Trauma

Gillian May
Photo byPhoto by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash

Trauma is becoming a pervasive problem in our current society. In one Netherlands-based study, the researchers estimated that the prevalence of lifetime traumatic events was as high as 71%. Another global study showed a prevalence of around 70%. This means that most people we meet these days have been through some sort of adverse or traumatic event.

One thing we need to understand about trauma is that it doesn’t have to be a big event to cause lasting damage. It really depends on how we respond to the event and what it does in our psyche. So while one person may not be traumatized by, (for example) a bullying incident, another person may have been significantly damaged.

However, with prevalence numbers this high, we can expect some fallout from pervasive trauma. We’ve heard of issues like PTSD and all the myriad symptoms that come with it. It’s important to acknowledge the role that trauma plays in the root causes of addiction such as alcoholism. Dr. Gabor Mate, a world-renowned specialist in addiction and trauma, agrees. He has coined the phrase, “don’t ask why the addiction, but why the pain.” And pain is the outcome of unresolved trauma.

The truth is that trauma causes most people to find ways to check out somehow, and there are many ways to do this. In fact, one of the main symptoms of trauma and PTSD is dissociation. This is a protective mechanism whereby our bodies and minds attempt to protect ourselves from overwhelming stimuli.

What’s important about dissociation is that many people continue to dissociateafter the trauma is long gone. This is because our bodies actually do this for us to help survive the trauma. But once the trauma is over, we may have a difficult time stopping our body from seeking this defense mechanism simply because we’re never really sure if we’re safe. And unfortunately, addictions like alcoholism are perfect for helping us to enhance and continue to dissociate.

There are lots of ways to shut out and dissociate from overwhelming stimuli — everything from dangerous to non-dangerous ways can be found today in society. Unfortunately, substance addiction happens to be higher on the physical and emotional danger scale. But like I said, addictions like alcoholism are awfully effective at helping people shut out the world.

It’s interesting how substance addiction is demonized in a society that uses so many ways to check out. Excessive shopping, gambling, watching TV, reading, exercising, and even eating can become addictive behaviors aimed at shutting out the stimuli. Some of these activities are healthier than others, but still, the goal is the same — to disengage with our present moment, so we don’t have to feel the pain.

The truth is, we are all in a lot of pain, and addiction is just one way that it manifests.

So as we attempt to unravel how to help people with addiction issues like alcoholism, I wonder why we rarely address the underlying trauma associated with it. Perhaps it’s because, so far, professional help hasn’t really addressed trauma on a broader scale, and we certainly haven’t put resources in the right place to do this.

As it stands, few people can even get access to things like therapy or other helpful modalities. It takes money and resources to do meditation, yoga, healthy exercise, and other useful activities. Some people are just barely hanging on and have no insight into how trauma has wreaked such havoc on their lives. And this is due to stigma and lack of education and awareness.

I contemplate these things a lot as a former nurse and recovering alcoholic. Although I succeeded in quitting drinking, I still have to contend with the trauma that haunts me daily. At times it can be hard to sort through my own emotions and reactions. In earlier days, alcohol would help me check out from it all. At the time, it was an excellent coping strategy until it started to ruin my health.

If you look at it, though, almost any coping strategy can begin to erode our daily lives if we end up turning to them more than we turn towards our own lives. Even something simple as excessive reading can become a problem if we spend most of our time in a book rather than looking up to what’s really happening around us.

When our society doesn’t value the importance of putting in resources to help over 70% of the traumatized population, what recourse do people have? They will just continue finding ways to check out. And can we blame people, really? If you’re in pain, would you not want to find something, anything, to help yourself at that moment?

So while alcohol addiction has very physical reasons for why the body continues craving the drug, we can’t overlook how much it ends up helping people cope with underlying trauma, even if it does sacrifice health and possibly lives.

Moving forward, we need more focused discussions and research aimed at first, identifying exactly how trauma is linked to addictions and second, how we can provide a different kind of sobriety support that actively helps people move through their unresolved trauma as part of their addiction treatment. And while talk therapy has been the gold star treatment for trauma, emerging research and thought leaders are identifying that trauma resolution happens more in the body than in the mind.

The more we talk about this, the more we can advocate for positive change and improved treatments.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational.


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