Trauma, Coping Skills, And Substance Abuse

Addiction can sometimes be the result of unhealthy coping skills. This is especially true for people who have experienced trauma. However, it’s never too late to learn new coping skills.

Trauma, Coping Skills, And Substance Abuse

Whether we are conscious of them or not, coping skills are something that each of us develops in order to deal with the ups and downs of life.

Our methods of dealing with stress and difficult emotions can be healthy or unhealthy. If we were lucky enough to have parents with healthy coping skills, we are more likely to cope with stress in healthy ways too.

If your coping skills are steering you toward a life filled with challenges, as is the case with addiction, it’s not your fault, and it’s never too late to learn healthy ways to cope. 

Coping Through Drug Use Is Deceptive

When it comes to addiction, a person might use a substance to deal with a negative emotion or similar stressor and seem to have success. 

Here are some examples:

  • alcohol use and experiencing less or no anxiety in social situations
  • cocaine use and experiencing a confidence boost
  • benzo use and experiencing a sense of calmness and the ability to fall asleep
  • opioid use and experiencing a feeling that everything is OK
  • meth use and experiencing feelings of happiness

For some people, underneath the decision to use the drug are feelings that seemed too scary or uncomfortable to deal with, and the drug becomes a way to avoid or mask them.

However, substance use is like a band-aid in the sense that it just covers up these stressful, strong emotions. 

If drugs were only like a band-aid, they might be a solution. However, using them can lead to dependency and tolerance, and cravings and addiction can be the result.

The negative consequences of substance abuse can be felt in every aspect of a person’s life.

Trauma adds an additional element to the role that strong emotions play in developing coping mechanisms.

What Is Trauma?

We are just beginning to understand trauma and its repercussions. What we do know is that not everyone who lives through a very stressful event will be traumatized by it. 

An event that causes physical or emotional harm is traumatic if it has lasting effects on a person’s:

  • mental health
  • emotional health
  • physical health
  • social or spiritual well-being

The event can be experienced directly by the person themself or witnessed by them, such as by seeing a family member hit another family member.

This encompasses a much wider expanse of experiences than people usually associate with trauma.

Signs of trauma in teenagers include:

  • sudden weight loss and other signs of eating disorders
  • self-harming behaviors
  • feeling alone
  • depression
  • alcohol or drug use
  • becoming sexually active

Studies show that a person’s support system and past experiences with trauma are factors that determine whether the person will be traumatized by a stressful event. 

Trauma’s Role In Developing Unhealthy Coping Skills

Many people with trauma in their past, especially in their childhoods, go on to develop substance use and co-occurring disorders like depression or other mental health disorders.

As a way of coping with the trauma, some forget that the incident ever happened, which can also complicate healing.

Strong feelings of fear and vulnerability get buried but aren’t healed. Even moments of slight stress can trigger a fear that the person will again be overwhelmed and helpless.

None of this is their fault. If a person uses a substance to avoid or cover up negative emotions, they can begin to heal when they learn that they can survive these emotions.

The Courage To Build Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Living with addiction can be its own traumatic experience. However, with courage, it can be overcome.  

Psychotherapist and regular contributor to Psychology Today Eric Maisel writes in “Ending the Aftershocks of Traumatic Experiences”:

“To a person, trauma robs us of some measure of our courage. And, it turns out, we need more courage after the traumatic event than we did before it, if we are to return to the living.”

Addiction specialists can help people discover their own motivation for finding the courage to heal, such as through motivational interviewing and other evidence-based techniques.

They can also help people with substance use disorders develop holistic coping skills to handle every situation in life and improve their self-care.

Emotion-Focused Coping

Coping skills related to emotions can help a person learn that emotions are temporary and can be dealt with in healthy ways.

The first step for some people might be acknowledging their emotions since we weren’t all taught how to recognize our full range of emotions and the sensations associated with them.

Therapy sessions such as those used in substance abuse treatment programs can help people identify negative thoughts and feelings.

From there, mindfulness practices such as meditation along with deep breathing, positive reframing, or turning to humor or faith-based perspectives can help. 

Problem-Focused Coping

These types of coping skills deal with the addiction itself and include managing the situation through relapse prevention strategies such as planning and restraint. 

For example, someone living with alcohol abuse might choose to bring their own non-alcoholic drinks to parties, not to visit bars, and to give away any alcohol they have in the house. 

Meaning-Focused Coping

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “Meaning makes a great many things endurable, perhaps everything.”

Motivational interviewing can also be helpful here, to assist people in finding their own reason for stopping their drug use. 

Then, instead of being seen as missing out or losing when they turn down an opportunity to use drugs, turning down drugs becomes an opportunity to build something important.  

Social Coping

Social coping skills revolve around finding support when difficult situations arise, which involves having social support networks in place.

This is another area where getting help at an alcohol and drug addiction treatment center can be beneficial.

Many rehab centers offer a wide range of peer support groups, mentor involvement, and group therapy options with the opportunity to continue after a treatment program ends.

Get Started On The Path To Addiction Recovery Today

If your loved one is struggling with substance abuse, reach out to us to learn more about the options available for beginning the recovery journey.

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