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Childhood Trauma and Substance Abuse

Why Can PTSD Lead to Teen Drug Use?

It’s hard to describe what life is life with PTSD and addiction. It’s different for everybody and unless you’ve been through it before, it’s hard to put yourself in your teen’s shoes. Some days, life goes on as normal. But with others, your teen is tortured by flashbacks and nightmares from that traumatic event – whether it was a car accident, abuse or some other trauma.

Imagine having to relive the scariest moment of your life over and over again. Imagine having to feel the pain and fear from that moment, as if it was still happening. This is what your teen is going through.

You see waves of stress, anxiety and pain crash into your teen on a constant basis, but you feel like you can’t do anything to help. Your teen, however, may have taken measures into their own hands and tried to cope through substance abuse.

Childhood trauma and substance abuse share an intense relationship. Take Austin Eubanks, for example. A survivor of the Columbine shooting, Austin’s traumatic experience as a teen is what led to his battle with addiction throughout his adult life. He then dedicated his career and the rest of his life helping people suffering from addiction and PTSD.

Drawing inspiration from Austin’s courageous journey, let’s take a closer look at the relationship between PTSD and addiction.

The Relationship Between PTSD and Drug Use

For you to completely understand what your teen is going through, it helps to learn what PTSD does to a child’s brain chemistry. PTSD mainly hits two key regions of the brain:

  • Amygdala: The amygdala triggers an individual’s fight or flight response and releases adrenaline when the brain detects a threat.
  • The Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex is made up of various parts, including the mid-anterior cingulate cortex and the right inferior frontal gyrus. When your teen is struggling with PTSD, the mid-anterior cingulate cortex is overstimulated and affects your teen’s emotional awareness. Meanwhile, the trauma has affected the right inferior frontal gyrus in such a way that your teen is more likely to take part in high-risk activities.

What does this mean? Well, PTSD results in an amygdala that reacts too strongly to potential threats and a pre-frontal cortex that has a harder time regulating that response. So, your teen is caught in a heighted state of fight or flight with an impaired ability to cope with it in a healthy and productive way.

The Symptoms of PTSD and Addiction

The emotional pain that stems from PTSD can cause a few specific symptoms that directly play into your teen’s addiction:

  • Hyperarousal: PTSD causes your teen to experience triggers that cause them to relive the emotional pain from the trauma, as if they were actually experiencing it again.
  • Impulsivity: Being more impulsive is one of the main drivers behind PTSD and drug abuse. Your teen’s brain is always ready to make quick impulsive actions, even when it’s not necessary.
  • Increase in Negative Emotions: Your teen might have difficulty enjoying their day-to-day life. They feel stuck in a sea of negative emotions and find it difficult to associate positive feelings to new events and experiences.

What makes PTSD and addiction so closely linked is how drugs and alcohol effect the brain. When your teen is plagued by PTSD symptoms, their natural reaction is to find a way to get rid of them as fast as possible.

Drug abuse suppresses these symptoms by getting the brain to release endorphins that makes your teen feel better. While substance abuse is not a healthy way to deal with childhood trauma, it can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD by numbing the debilitating emotional pain – at least, for a short time. In the long term though, substance use leads to addiction and ends up making PTSD symptoms worse.

Help Your Teen Recovery from PTSD and Addiction

If your teen has experienced childhood trauma, their brain has become hardwired to be in a constant state of unrest, which leads to substance abuse. At Kokua Recovery, we understand the impact trauma has on your teen. We use dual-diagnosis treatment and positive, experiential therapy to help their brain return to a healthier state.

You know from watching your teen that the path to recovery is not easy. But recovery is possible through post traumatic growth and healing. Through proper support, care and guidance, your teen will be able to face their PTSD and addiction in a positive way and return to being the healthy, happy child you remember.

“Whoever you are, whatever you’re going through, in whatever way you might be going through it, just know this. In order to heal, you have to feel it.”

-Austin Eubanks

Hope and Healing are Possible at Kokua Recovery

If your teen is suffering from trauma and substance abuse, we’re here to help. Together, we can take the first step towards addressing this pain and addiction. Know that hope is within reach. Contact our team today to get your teen started on the road to recovery.

Ken Huey

Upon graduating from Purdue with a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy, Dr. Huey worked as a therapist, Clinical Director, and Business Development Director in residential treatment. Dr. Huey was always drawn to the large population of adoptees in residential treatment (he is adopted himself). He ultimately became convinced that this population needed specialty care and in November of 2006, Dr. Huey founded Calo. Calo grew to a 200 plus employee organization with about the same numbers of teen clients served each year. He sold Calo and retired in June of 2015. He came out of retirement in 2017 and founded Kokua Recovery, trauma-informed residential drug and alcohol treatment with sites in Colorado.

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