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A Guide to Trauma Therapy for Women in Recovery

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Trauma can happen to anyone anywhere at any time, but women will likely suffer more from its debilitating effects if they are left untreated. 

According to the American Psychological Association, while nearly half of all people will experience a traumatic event at least once in their lives, women are at higher risk of experiencing adverse consequences long after encountering a distressing event.

Women are also twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they have a bad experience. PTSD can happen immediately after the event, or it can occur over time. 

The APA says that women are unlikely to seek mental health treatment for severe PTSD symptoms that can last for weeks, months, or even years. Such symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, and prolonged insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

“Survivors often wait years to receive help, while others never receive treatment at all,” the APA writes.

Deciding to wait or not seek help alters many women’s lives forever. Without treatment for their mental health needs, they still must find some way to live with what has happened to them. 

Many of these women will self-medicate with addictive substances to cope with PTSD as best they can on their own, but not without the risk of developing substance dependence or addiction.

Unfortunately, using addictive substances in this way puts their lives at risk on multiple levels. Addiction, a chronic, progressive disease of the brain, makes it nearly impossible to stop using substances without the proper medical and psychological interventions. 

Many women in recovery from substance use disorders face this reality. Without the proper help for a substance use disorder, they are at risk of overdosing or compromising their physical, mental, and emotional health. Fortunately, trauma therapy can help them overcome substance misuse and improve their mental health. 

This kind of therapy addresses their unique needs and the challenges they face as they aim to achieve full-time sobriety.

Understanding Trauma: What Is It?

We often hear the word “trauma,” but what does it mean? According to the APA, trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event, such as a car accident, a natural disaster, or rape. Medical News Today adds that trauma can be a response to any event that someone finds threatening or harmful. 

The site also explains that there are different kinds of trauma. Acute trauma occurs after one stressful or dangerous event, while chronic trauma involves repeated and prolonged exposure to a series of distressing events. A third kind, complex trauma, occurs when a person encounters multiple traumatic events.

Many negative emotions can unfold after a person experiences a negative event, including:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Pain
  • Loss
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Helplessness

These emotions usually follow events such as:

  • Witnessing a crime, abuse, assault, or violence of any kind
  • Natural disasters 
  • Serious accidents 
  • Severe or life-threatening illnesses or medical procedure
  • War, political violence, or unrest (terrorist attacks)
  • Forced displacement
  • Homelessness
  • Neglect
  • Forced separation
  • Childbirth
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Bullying
  • Divorce
  • Kidnapping

It is not hard to imagine why someone would have a hard time moving on with their lives after having experiences like these. They can be the victim of such events or the person who witnessed them happening to someone else. 

People who go through traumatic events can suffer mentally, physically, and emotionally, making it very difficult to move on. Symptoms of trauma vary widely, but they range from minor to severe, depending on the person.

People with strong reactions might struggle to control their emotions or stay emotionally present. They may fall behind on their responsibilities as they fail to function normally. If changes like these last longer than a month after a stressful event occurred, then a person might want to consider seeking treatment for PTSD.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

The inability to move forward is not in someone’s imagination. Trauma can rewire how the brain perceives and responds to threatening stimuli, which can have exhausting effects on the person affected by these changes. 

According to Psychology Today, research suggests that the brains of people with PTSD are hyperactive to perceived threats, as the amygdala part of the brain is overactive or hyper-aroused. 

Overactivity in this part of the brain means excess norepinephrine is released, making it harder for people to get to sleep or stay asleep. It also keeps them hypervigilant in “fight or flight” mode when there is no actual threat. 

Trauma can also affect another part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which can be found in the frontal lobe just behind the forehead. The PFC has several important functions, including regulating one’s attention and awareness and deciding how to respond to situations. 

A 3D image of a brain at risk of harm from drugs and alcohol

According to Psychology Today, “…the medial part of the prefrontal cortex consciously assesses the threat and either accentuates or calms down the ‘fight or flight’ response.” If trauma affects the medial PFC, it can’t do its job to regulate the threat response because the amygdala is in a state of high arousal much of the time.

With these changes occurring in the brain due to trauma, a person can struggle to calm their fears, staying wound up a great deal of the time. They are on high alert when there is no actual problem, making it hard to relax. They also can struggle to find life enjoyment or relate to others.

Understanding How Trauma, Substance Abuse Are Linked

Lingering symptoms can drive some people to make a dangerous choice that they view as simple—either use substances to numb their feelings or risk being swallowed whole by painful memories that they just can’t forget no matter how much they try.

PTSD symptoms keep people stuck in a loop that makes it difficult to separate the past from the present. PTSD means:

  • Thinking about the distressing event without wanting to
  • Reliving the event through flashbacks
  • Struggling with stressful dreams or frightening nightmares
  • Having panic attacks that speed up the heart rate or make it difficult to breathe
  • Avoiding anything that could trigger memories of the upsetting event
  • Feeling guarded all the time or being unable to control anger or irritability
  • Trouble concentrating, getting to sleep, or staying asleep

When a person has decided to self-medicate using drugs or alcohol, or both, they likely will do so regularly enough where their use alters their brain. If the person reduces their substance use or stops it altogether, the PTSD symptoms they experience will only worsen. 

If they go back to using the substances after a break, they are now at risk of overdosing on their substance of choice because their body had already started trying to return to normal or at least to where it was before they started using.

This, unfortunately, is the cycle someone struggling with PTSD and addiction can be caught up in until they receive intervention help for the PTSD or other mental health disorders they have.

When every facet of one’s life is affected by traumatic memories, this must be addressed when a person is in recovery from substance use, and this is where trauma therapy comes in.

How Trauma Therapy Can Help Women in Recovery

Women in recovery who have experienced trauma might find therapies centered on addressing trauma helpful.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and Administration (SAMHSA) highlights how any program, system, or organization, including substance treatment facilities, can use a trauma-informed approach. 

Recovery centers that use a trauma-informed approach to help women in recovery consider the role trauma has played in the development of their clients’ substance use disorders as well as how trauma affects their clients’ overall physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Trauma can also continue after someone develops substance dependence, so that is taken into consideration also.

If you are a woman in recovery looking for trauma-specific interventions that are offered as part of an addiction treatment program, ensure that the program:

  • Respects survivors’ needs and acknowledges the effects of trauma
  • Reviews survivors’ trauma histories to inform their treatment plans 
  • Understands how trauma and substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety, are related to trauma 
  • Aims to work with trauma survivors, their family and friends, and agencies that help survivors 

It is important for trauma survivors to receive therapies that encourage their recovery from substance addiction and their post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. 

Dual diagnosis treatment will likely be recommended for people with both kinds of disorders as treatment of this kind addresses both disorders together at the same time.

A treatment plan that does not take both into consideration together might not work for women in recovery for a substance use disorder. 

Other Therapies for Trauma and Substance Use Disorders

Women in recovery who are trauma survivors may also use the following therapies in their addiction treatment program:

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is a short-term approach that uses cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to help trauma survivors address and change destructive or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. This therapy might also benefit the friends and relatives of the woman in recovery as it can help them learn about trauma, substance use disorders, and how the two intersect.

Trauma survivors will identify negative thought patterns and learn skills that can help them improve their decision-making and behavior. A licensed mental health professional with training in cognitive behavioral therapy and family therapy can lead TF-CBT sessions, which last about eight to 25 sessions, according to Psychology Today.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

Addiction treatment centers might offer eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy developed specifically to help people struggling with PTSD. 

Trauma survivors who use EMDR will work with a therapist who will guide them as they revisit the survivor’s upsetting memories to neutralize those memories and triggers that bring on negative emotions and behaviors. They will then reprocess their thoughts in ways that are more beneficial to them. 

This therapy focuses on changing how the survivor’s brain stored the memory as well as the emotional responses brought on by a painful experience.

Getting Help for Trauma and Addiction at Pathway to Hope

Substance use disorders and mental health disorders both are likely to worsen when left untreated, and the demographic that stands to fare the worst from this outcome is women. If you are a woman and a trauma survivor who also is battling a substance use disorder, let Pathway to Hope help you today.

We understand the complex disease of addiction and the various mental health disorders that coincide with it. You will find treatment here that can help you work through both. We can give you the tools and strategies you need to make your recovery a reality.

Your story matters here, and you always come first. Give us a call to learn about our programs and services and how we can help you or your loved one. 

Sources

"Trauma." American Psychological Association. from https://www.apa.org/advocacy/interpersonal-violence/women-trauma

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July). Drug Abuse and Addiction. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction

Leonard, Jayne. “What Is Trauma?” (June 2020). Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/trauma#definition

Greenburg, Melanie, Ph.D. “How PTSD and Trauma Affect Your Brain Functioning.” Psychology Today. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201809/how-ptsd-and-trauma-affect-your-brain-functioning

SAMHSA's Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. PDF (2014). from https://store.samhsa.gov/product/SAMHSA-s-Concept-of-Trauma-and-Guidance-for-a-Trauma-Informed-Approach/SMA14-4884

"Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy." Psychology Today. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/trauma-focused-cognitive-behavior-therapy

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