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The Link Between Addiction, Sexual Abuse, and PTSD

Jan 18, 2021

Effectively treating a substance use disorder (SUD) relies on understanding how it developed. Knowing the factors that led to or add to addiction can help treatment specialists shape the experience of a program for women with SUDs. Two of those factors can come from sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences that happened recently or as far back as childhood. Today, let’s talk about how sexual abuse, post-traumatic stress, and addiction are related.

Women are far more likely than men to be victims of sexual abuse and assault.  These traumatic experiences are also more common in girls under the age of 18 than boys. The experiences can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women. They may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the painful memories of abuse. Holistic treatment options offer help for substance use disorders, co-occurring mental health disorders, and trauma therapies personalized for each patient. 

How are trauma and addiction connected?

For many trauma survivors with a substance use disorder, the use of substances usually gets more attention. The behavior of drinking or doing drugs and the consequences (intoxication, missed work, legal issues, etc.) are often very visible. Even the person with a substance use disorder may be unaware of how the two are connected.

So, does trauma lead to addiction? For trauma survivors, drug and alcohol use are a symptom of an underlying issue. The trauma was never resolved, and they may not even be actively thinking about it, but it still makes them feel lonely or disconnected from others. They may have low self-esteem. Using drugs or alcohol may be a way to deal with painful memories or escape from them. Uncontrolled abuse is usually a sign of several self-destructive behaviors.

One way the trauma returns is in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and memories. These are examples of a trauma survivor experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD may become irritable or angry and avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic experience.

How does gender affect abuse and addiction?

Women make up the largest group of victims of sexual abuse in the country. More than 90 percent of reported sexual assaults and rapes happen to women. They become targets early in life, too. One in four girls become victims of sexual abuse before age 18.

Sexual abuse is a form of trauma that affects every aspect of a person: their sense of safety, identity, ability to trust others, and more. Living with trauma can lead a woman to many self-destructive behaviors. Drug and alcohol misuse is a significant one. Women with unresolved trauma may start drinking routinely with friends or alone as a response to the overwhelming feelings about their past experiences. The constant desire to drink can lead to alcohol abuse very quickly as tolerance goes up and larger amounts get consumed more often.

How can you help someone who may have been abused?

If you believe someone is being sexually abused right now, make it a priority to encourage them to get help. If the abuse happened years ago, give them a safe place to talk about it first. Check in with them regularly after that first talk. Being a reliable and trustworthy friend will be important in taking the next step.

With recovery as a goal, you can begin getting acquainted with the resources available in your area. You can do this on your own time to get informed about each option and how it might benefit your loved one. You should be able to find resources for doctors, addiction specialists, and mental health professionals while doing your research.

When talking to a trauma survivor, presenting treatment options doesn’t mean planning for their care. You’re working as a facilitator for treatment, not a decision-maker. Also, remember to use plenty of patience as you might have several conversations or visits on the subject before your loved one is ready to commit to treatment.

What kind of treatment helps someone with addiction who has been abused?

A holistic approach to address substance use and a co-occurring mental health disorder is recommended. This personalized style of treatment can help a woman feel more committed to her own recovery. A treatment program with a gender-specific facility can help patients feel safe and secure while under the care of other women. Patients with PTSD will benefit from a program offering trauma therapies, too. These evidence-based therapies include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as meditation and mindfulness training.

Hannah’s House is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 866-952-5532.

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