The Tie that Binds: From Trauma to Addiction

There is plenty of research available to confirm that there is, indeed, a link between trauma and addiction.  Even childhood trauma – various types of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), loss of a parent, witnessing domestic violence – increases one’s risk of developing an addiction in adulthood (Feletti et al., 1998). 

Our stress response system is designed to alert us to danger, and when the danger is over, it is supposed to allow us to relax again.  In children suffering from chronic trauma, the system becomes dysregulated and never has the chance to “calm down.”  The stress system actually malfunctions to the extent that it is always “on,” meaning the sufferer experiences continuous stress arousal, anxiety, hypervigilance, and alertness (De Bellis & Zisk, 2014).  The dysregulation of the stress system leads to negative effects on the immune system, emotional regulation skills, cognitive skills, executive functioning, and may even increase the risk for neurodegenerative diseases (Dunlavey et al., 2018).

Why does this lead to addiction, though?  Because alcohol and other substances change the way a person feels by producing pleasure (even for a short time), and reduces feelings of unhappiness or uneasiness.  The addiction provides some temporary relief from chronic hyperarousal and anxiety.  Gambling addictions, especially with electronic machines, lulls players into sort of a trance so they forget about everything except the machine (Schull, 2012).  This all means that individuals with a history of experiencing trauma are likely going to be more vulnerable to some form of addiction as a means of regulating their mood, quieting unwanted, intrusive thoughts, and suppressing the arousal caused by the steady flow of stress hormones into their system (Levin et al., 2021; van der Kolk, 2014).

Is there a genetic link between trauma and addiction?  Technically, yes, but that’s probably a little more complicated than we have the space to go into here.  Suffice to say that people exposed to trauma and who also have a certain genetic structure may have certain responses “triggered” in them that cause them to lean toward some type of addictive behavior.  But it’s important to remember that this does not happen with everyone.  In fact, a supportive environment is shown to help prevent that “triggering” from taking place (Jaffe, 2018).

What are the implications of this evidence for first responders?  Well, can you think of a group of people more familiar with a stress response system that seems to be in a constant state of arousal?  I can’t.  A key lesson to learn from all this is that if a supportive environment can help people avoid descending into a negative spiral toward addiction, then our agencies should do a better job of providing the necessary support.  That could come in the form of an overall wellness program that addresses the daily stressors of the job, critical incident stress, and even stressors outside the job that if addressed will allow the employee to function better on the job.

We consistently advocate peer support as a necessary part of the continuum of care for first responders.  In cases of addiction, peers are best able to help one another by encouraging the person suffering from addiction to seek out professional help as quickly as possible.  Our peer support specialists can have that initial conversation with you if you’re concerned about your own situation, and we can direct you toward culturally competent professionals in your area that can get you to the right kind of assistance. Feel free to reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org for more information.

Published by David R. Edwards, Ph.D., C.T.S.S.

David is a reserve police officer, chaplain, author, and educator, and a Certified Trauma Services Specialist. He is an approved instructor for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.

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