We’ve all likely experienced or witnessed a traumatic event at some point, whether it was a car accident, a devastating breakup or divorce, the death of a loved one, or losing a job or a house. It impacts us deeply and the fallout is felt in a number of ways: we’re tired, depressed, irritable or fearful, and we may initially find it difficult to move on. But most of us grieve and then eventually grow from the experience and move forward.

For some victims of trauma, however, the process is not as smooth, and their experiences lead them down a dark road of mental health issues and possible substance abuse and drug dependency. The relationship between various forms of trauma and addiction is a complicated one, and what happens in a person’s formative years can have a lasting impact on how they live their lives decades later.

What Is Trauma?

The word “trauma” is overused — and often misused — but what does it actually mean? The American Psychological Association explains trauma as an emotional response to an event that makes a person genuinely scared for their life or their well-being. In the short term, trauma manifests as shock, mental disorientation, or denial that something bad happened. In the long term, trauma can result in an inability to concentrate on day-to-day activities, nightmares, unbidden and intrusive recollections of the event, difficulty in maintaining social and professional obligations, depression and substance abuse. Collectively, these are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Psychology Today goes on to explain that the concept of “personal vulnerability” is key when understanding how trauma affects people. Someone doesn’t have to be involved in a car accident in order to feel traumatized by the event; if they perceive the accident made them feel personally vulnerable — perhaps by virtue of their physical proximity to the accident or if they were supposed to have been in one of the vehicles, but weren’t — then they can be as traumatized by the event as someone who was actively involved in the accident. A soldier who sees his colleagues killed or injured while remaining physically unharmed himself will be at risk for suffering nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance behaviors, chronic stress and depression associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Perhaps the most fundamental example of this is how a vulnerable child can be traumatized by seeing a sibling or parent abused, even if the child himself is not on the receiving end of the abuse. Because children feel particularly helpless in these situations and don’t know how to properly process traumatic experiences or events, they are more prone to developing an anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, children who grow up exposed to trauma have brains that are chemically and neurologically different than children who grow up in safe, secure environments.

A study done by researchers at the University of Texas and published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology discovered that teenagers who had experienced trauma as a child, whether it was substantial abuse or neglect, surviving a life-threatening sickness, witnessing domestic violence or having a parent die before the age of 10, showed “connectivity problems” in several brain areas. This includes the one responsible for planning behavior and another that connects the brain’s emotional processing regions to thought, allowing the patient to regulate his or her response to emotional stress.

The Emotional Abuse Connection

Emotional abuse and trauma are harder to quantify, primarily because they often go unrecognized, undiagnosed, and unreported. In June 2013, TIME magazine reviewed a study published in the journal Pediatrics that said bullying — whether at the hands of a sibling or kids in the schoolyard — was “linked to worse mental health outcomes for kids and adolescents.” Even children who underwent seemingly innocuous experiences, like having toys broken by an older brother or sister, had greater levels of depression, anxiety and anger than children who had no such experiences.

Roughly 33 percent of children who received physical and verbal abuse from siblings (or their own parents) grew up to display more mental health symptoms than children who were not belittled or made to feel scared. Severe bullying can lead to untreated depression that can contribute to a substance abuse problem that manifests even decades later.

Fortunately, treatment for trauma is available. Contact us for more information about our programs that address behavioral health issues including trauma.