Women, Trauma, and Addiction

women trauma and addiction

The Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction

One size does not fit all for people entering treatment for alcoholism, addiction, and trauma – this is especially true for women. It makes sense that treatment for men and women needs to be different and specific as well. Traditionally, addiction and mental health programs have not dealt with trauma issues in the early stages of recovery. These underlying, untreated issues are more often than not the primary triggers for relapse.

Many people who need help come up with several reasons why they can’t go to treatment; these reasons vary between men and women. The different genders also experience alcoholism and addiction differently, so it makes sense that their treatment experiences can vary as well.

According to one study on women’s treatment outcomes by Lisa R. Cohen, Ph.D. and Denise A. Hien, Ph.D…

“Over the past decade, researchers and practitioners have become increasingly aware of the significant relationship between trauma exposure and substance use disorders among women. As many as 80 percent of women who are seeking treatment for substance use disorders report a lifetime history of sexual assault, physical assault, or both. Comorbid posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates in this population range from 30 to 59 percent, with even higher lifetime rates.”

“After three months participants (90 days) in the therapy group had significant reductions in PTSD and alcohol use disorder symptoms. A trend was found toward a decrease in drug use disorder symptoms, although it did not reach significance.”

Meeting the Needs of Women

In my 30+ years in this profession, I’ve seen the focus on addiction only. Within these programs, people were expected to deal with other issues through their personal recovery process or in individual therapy after treatment. Our knowledge and understanding of women’s issues has fortunately increased, and we have adapted new treatments to better meet the needs of these women.

Treatment is likely to be ineffective unless it addresses the trauma in conjunction with the addiction. Educating women about the realities of abuse, neglect, trauma, and violence is often the key to them understanding their responses to the same.

The DSM has stated that trauma responses are normal reactions to abnormal situations. Teaching coping skills is an important aspect to help cope with traumatic experiences. Untreated trauma has been noted as a significant risk factor in relapse and revictimization for women. Services need to be delivered in a way that avoids triggering trauma, bringing up trauma memories, or causing unintentional re-traumatization.

PTSD Symptoms in Women

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV TR) lists the following symptoms of PTSD:

  • Re-experiencing the event through nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoidance of stimuli associated with the event (for example, if a woman was assaulted by a blonde man, she may fear and want to avoid men with blonde hair)
  • Estrangement (the inability to be emotionally close to anyone)
  • Numbing of general responsiveness (feeling nothing most of the time)
  • Hypervigilance (constantly scanning one’s environment for danger, whether physical or emotional)
  • Exaggerated startle response (a tendency to jump at loud noises or unexpected touch)

A Safe Place to Start Over

A healing place and a safe environment must be created to assist women in the changing of their lives. Leadership and therapists in residential settings can help by ensuring appropriate boundaries between patients and treatment staff. Women need to be assured that their treatment experience is free of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Additionally, they should know that it is completely free of judgement. Their triggers cannot be completely removed or eliminated, but creating this refuge will allow them to develop the coping skills that will be necessary during their recovery.

Augustine Recovery and our women’s program were established to provide a healing place for women and their families. We are excited to announce that our Women’s Program should be fully operational in January of 2021. Augustine Recovery does have a men’s program as well, but each gender’s separate campus is miles apart. We believe that gender-specific programs provide the safety needed while in a substance abuse program and treating trauma. Augustine Recovery has developed a curriculum to specifically meet the needs of women and men in their respective programs. For more information about our new Women’s Program, contact us today.

David A. Cunningham LADACII, NCACI, CADC, QCS
The Augustine Recovery Center
Director of Development
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