Defining Trauma and Its Relationship to Substance Misuse

More often than not, diagnosed cases of substance misuse and addictive disorders are accompanied by co-occurring mental health disorders. According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAHMSA), an early 1990s study showed that 50 to 75 percent of addiction recovery patients had been diagnosed with some form of a co-occurring mental health disorder, while 20 to 50 percent of patients admitted to mental health clinics also suffered from substance misuse and/or an addictive disorder. The link between addiction and mental illness is clearly evident and should come as no surprise, given the relatively recent classification of addictive disorders as a disease that affects both brain function as well as behavior. 

Trauma and the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that results from that initial traumatic event is one of the more frequent co-conspirators in this dual diagnosis approach toward addiction recovery. SAHMSA defines trauma as any “experience that causes intense physical and psychological stress reactions. Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (SAMHSA, Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative).

Left untreated, traumatic life events seep into the unconscious mind and become a constant source of mental anguish, promoting a variety of other mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders. The unconscious effects are what makes trauma a particularly dangerous psychological affliction, since traumatic life events tend to not always affect individuals instantaneously. Like shock waves following an earthquake, the repercussions can reverberate from events as far back as childhood. As a result, many individuals are left clueless as to their behavior being representative of the symptoms of PTSD.

In SAMHSA’s informative guide Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services, the relationship of substance misuse and PTSD is further explored while updating potential guidelines on treatment options for the two co-occurring disorders. The report depicts a variety of studies that all show that exposure to traumatic life events, no matter if the individual has a stress reaction to that trauma or not, greatly increases that individual’s chances for substance misuse disorder. In one survey of 959 addictive disorder patients, the study found that up to 88.6 percent of the patients reported experiencing at least one traumatic event. They also found that for men, the reported traumatic life event most commonly involved a serious accident (reported by 39.9 percent), robbery (38.2 percent), or seeing a person killed or injured (37.7 percent).

Treating PTSD Induced Addiction Disorders

Practicing meditation that focuses on mindfulness has been proven to be one of the more effective treatment methods when it comes to PTSD.  For the uninitiated, mindfulness meditation involves silent reflection on the inner self with an emphasis on focusing one’s attention inward through efforts like mirroring the breath. It is a practice that can easily be done at home through either guided help (YouTube offers a variety of free guided meditations) or unguided self-reflection. The overall purpose of mindfulness meditation, aside from creating an overall calming effect, is to promote an increased self-awareness by focusing on the present moment while silencing the constant chatter of inner thoughts — what is commonly referred to in the meditation community as “monkey mind.”

Being present and mindful of the moment allows those suffering from PTSD to slow down and recognize their symptoms rather than simply react to them. It is this increased self-awareness gained through mindfulness meditation that allows patients to begin the healing process as they start to understand the complicated relationship between their past trauma and their current substance misuse.   

While practicing mindfulness through meditation can increase an individual’s self-awareness of PTSD symptoms, it cannot solely be relied on to do all the heavy lifting when recovering from trauma and co-occurring substance misuse. Meditation simply gives you the tools of self-awareness that allow you to open the door and begin the healing process. Therapy, either in a group or one-on-one sessions, is necessary at this stage of recovery in order for patients to actually heal those traumatic wounds from their past. This prescribed treatment of trauma and addiction is just another example of how necessary dual diagnosis treatment services really are for a successful and sober recovery.


If you have experienced a traumatic life event and are suffering from PTSD and substance misuse, Choice House has the treatment services to help you recover. We offer dual-diagnosis addiction treatment services to help men pave a path to sobriety by creating a new foundation of love and empathy. Our variety of therapeutic modalities are offered through a 90-day inpatient program, an intensive outpatient service, and residency at our sober living campus. Located in the Boulder County area of Colorado, we are fortunate to have direct access to the Rocky Mountain National Park that is literally in our back yard. Our campus’ ideal location allows us to provide a unique outdoor wilderness therapeutic modality where men reconnect with nature, fellow men in recovery, and themselves through physical activity like hiking, kayaking, and rock climbing. We feel that the lifelong bonds of friendship created in our outdoor therapy model will prove critical to the recovery process long after recovery patients have left our facilities. The bustling city of Louisville is also just a short drive away, which makes our facilities a perfect site for those in early recovery. Individuals transitioning back to their daily lives can seek out employment and maintain social lives while still under the guidance and supervision that is so necessary in early recovery. For more information regarding Choice House’s addiction recovery programs or facilities, please give us a call today at (720) 577-4422.

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