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Statistics highlight that about 31 million adults struggle with addiction, but only around 10% seek medical treatment. That says a lot about the nature of addiction and its close association with feelings of shame and trauma. In fact, researchers have found that these two elements play crucial roles in the development of addiction and dependence, and in its treatment.

Shame, trauma, and addiction often intertwine to create the perfect storm, fueling and feeding each other in a vicious cycle. But by developing a deeper understanding of how they work together, individuals have a better chance at undoing the ties that bind these three elements together, paving the way for effective healing and freedom from addiction.

What is Shame?

Shame is a negative evaluation of the self, making a person feel as though they’re unworthy, unlovable, and imperfect. Unlike guilt which stems from actions that go against a person’s moral code, shame is a self-conscious concept that involves the person as a whole. That is, a person who feels shame might often experience guilt, but a person who feels guilt won’t necessarily feel shame.

The self-concept of shame can come from various experiences and events mostly involving key persons in an individual’s life. The pattern, however, is that shame will typically arise from the constant, recurrent exposure of a person’s flaws and imperfections. Experiences that can lead to shame include:

  • Fault-finding from parents, teachers, and other recognized authority figures
  • Physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional violence
  • Bullying
  • Intimate partner abuse or infidelity
  • Rape
  • Dysfunctional family dynamics
  • Abandonment
  • Poverty

Shame can develop at any point in a person’s life. However chronic shame will typically come as the result of abuse, violence, and neglect stemming from childhood. When a person is constantly subjected to these experiences, they begin to develop a negative concept regarding the self.

Without the proper emotional, psychological, and even financial support, individuals who are exposed to these situations are inclined to evaluate themselves as lacking in worth. Common ideas that people associate with themselves when they develop feelings of shame include:

  • Unlovable
  • Failure
  • Defective
  • Undeserving of happiness
  • Morally bad

What is Trauma?

Events that leave deep, lasting, negative effects are called traumatic experiences. These can alter a person’s psychology by overloading their mind with overwhelming stress. The result is that an individual might struggle to cope, leaving them scarred by the encounter for many years into their adult life. In some cases, trauma never goes away.

Trauma is typically developed after a severely disturbing or distressing experience. While most people assume that trauma occurs as a one-time event, there are certain types of trauma that can occur over a long period of time. Some examples of experiences leading to trauma can include:

  • The death of a loved one
  • Natural calamities and disasters
  • Witnessing a death
  • Wars and violence
  • Rape
  • Divorce
  • Moving to a new area
  • Abandonment
  • Domestic abuse
  • Terrorism
  • Being witness to or a victim of crime
  • Injury

One-time trauma is described as single instances that produce a lasting psychological effect. These can include natural disasters, divorce, and death. With this kind of trauma, it only takes one occurrence for an individual to develop the mental impact.

Recurrent trauma happens when a person is exposed to uncomfortable, unsafe, or unpleasant environments and situations over an extended period of time. For example, living in an unsafe, crime-riddled neighborhood for most of your childhood can also develop trauma.

When a person experiences a traumatic event, they can feel the ripples of the psychological scarring for many years after. Some individuals develop what’s called post-traumatic stress disorder, where situations that remind the person of the traumatic event may trigger feelings of worry, anxiety, stress, and panic.

How Do Shame and Trauma Cause Addiction?

It’s important to keep in mind that there is no single causative factor for addiction and substance abuse. Instead, it’s a combination of different events, experiences, and situations that may make it more likely for a person to turn to illicit substances for comfort and relief.

Shame and trauma play a role in the development of addiction because some people will turn to drugs as a means of escaping negative thoughts and feelings. In fact, some experts suggest that alcoholism and drug use are signs that an individual is attempting to ‘self-medicate’ their trauma and shame.

The high that results after the use of illicit substances and alcohol temporarily relieves a person of the negative self-concept and traumatic pain that they might experience. But as the high subsides, their negative feelings are paired together with the symptoms of withdrawal which can make them feel worse off than they were when they started.

As a result, individuals tend to chase after the feeling of relief by taking succeeding doses of their chosen substance once the effects subside. And so dependence and addiction are formed. While these two terms are used interchangeably, they describe two different elements of substance abuse:

  • Addiction – Refers to the feeling of cravings that drive a person to seek the substance over and over again.
  • Dependence – Described as the inability to function without the substance. Withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks without being under the influence, and so a person ‘depends’ on the substance to function.

Shame can be particularly difficult to deal with in relation to substance abuse. The reason for this is because as the person forms addiction or dependence, it becomes another element of their negative self-concept. So while their initial shame made them want to try drugs or alcohol, their present use of illicit substances becomes another source of shame.

The mounting shame will keep bringing them back to the same habit as they attempt to relieve the negative thoughts and feelings by escaping reality with a high. Unfortunately, if the cycle isn’t stopped, most individuals are placed at risk of a drug overdose, disease, and even death.

How Trauma and Shame Hinder Addiction Recovery

Aside from contributing to the development of an addiction, trauma and shame can also hinder recovery. This is what makes it particularly important to target the root cause of these factors, especially when dealing with substance use disorders. People struggling with shame and trauma can get in the way of their own recovery by:

  • Refusing to share or open up. Individuals who struggle with shame feel reluctant to talk about their pastexperiences out of fear that they might be judged or condemned. This can make it difficult for healthcare workers to identify the root of their shame.
  • Lying about the past. It can be difficult to talk about sources of shame and trauma, which pushes some individuals to lie about their experiences. Providing false narratives can be dangerous for the recovery process, and may cause therapists to draw inappropriate conclusions.
  • Doubting progress and recovery. Shame can make a person feel as though they’re incapable of recovery, or that they don’t deserve to be happy or healthy. This negative mindset can significantly impact their response to and cooperation with treatment.
  • Assuming they’re a burden. It’s common for individuals with deep-rooted trauma and shame to feel as though they’re a burden to those trying to help them. This makes them reluctant to participate in therapy, and may even push them to avoid their sessions.

How to Treat Shame and Trauma

The treatment methods for shame and trauma often resemble one another in that therapists work to unearth the roots of each problem. Some of the most common methods used to treat shame and trauma include:

  • Counseling – As one of the most common methods of treatment for mental health, counseling aims to help individuals learn more about themselves. Each session explores the reasons for one’s behavior, and links negative actions and poor life choices with traumatic and shameful events from the past. It’s every counselors objective to help patients accept their past and move on from the negative experience.
  • Support Groups – It’s easier to cope with the past and with present mistakes by connecting with individualswith similar experiences. Support groups aim to help patients release their shame in knowing that there are others who have gone through familiar circumstances. Seeing that there are ‘others like them’ clears away feelings of isolation and uniqueness that often fuel shame.
  • Reconciliation – There are some cases when family members and friends are willing to make amends in order to help an individual through therapy and recovery. Health experts seek to maximize these opportunities whenever available since reconciliation proves to be one of the most effective methods for long term wellness.

Moving On From the Past

Trauma and shame usually develop from experiences in childhood, but their crippling effects can be felt way into adulthood. By addressing these issues, individuals have a better chance of recovering from addiction and preventing relapse. Of course, the road to wellness is often riddled with challenges and stumbling blocks. But with a willingness to accept the past and move on from the hurt, individuals gain the upper hand over their trauma and shame.

How Lighthouse Can Help

Addressing your relationship with drugs or alcohol can be a very eye-opening experience. Addiction can develop under the surface, and many may not even realize the extent of their use. If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol and are ready to take the first step towards your sober future today, Lighthouse Recovery can help find the program for you. With an array of options, from sober living to an intensive outpatient program, the caring professionals will work alongside you to find the care that can help you achieve your specific goals in recovery. Each program can be further personalized to address the coping skills, grounding mechanisms, and life skills that are most pertinent to each individual. 

Learn more about our services or contact us below to discover how Lighthouse can help you on your road to recovery today. Thank you for your trust.