A history of trauma is a major factor for substance abuse for both men and women, but men and women experience and respond to trauma differently. This is due in part to traits unique to each gender, including differences in the structures and functions of the male vs. the female brain. More complicated are the environmental and cultural factors that come into play when coping with a traumatic event, regardless of when the trauma occurred.
Symptoms of Trauma
Common traumatic events include witnessing or being victimized by a violent crime or natural disaster; trauma encountered as a first responder or member of the military; or physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Whether the trauma was experienced early in life or later on, it can have devastating effects on mental health if it’s left untreated.
Some of the symptoms of trauma include:
- Anger or irritability
- Fear and anxiety
- Guilt, shame and self-blame
- Feelings of numbness or disconnectedness
- Withdrawal from others
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a behavioral disorder that may occur soon after or years after a trauma. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Fear or anxiety
PTSD can take a major toll on an individual’s quality of life and sense of well-being. The good news is that trauma and PTSD are treatable.
Masculinity and Trauma Response
Two of the most fundamental factors for how an individual will respond to trauma are gender and culture. In general, men are taught from an early age to be strong, competitive, aggressive and in control, while traits such as vulnerability or displays of grief are tacitly discouraged. This societal expectation and cultural self-identity affects how men cope with trauma, whether it occurred in their recent past or during childhood.
An article published in Addiction Professional Magazine stresses that men in particular are likely to experience feelings of anger associated with trauma, and they’re likely to externalize the effects of trauma by acting out aggressively or violently.1 It’s not uncommon for men to suppress the memories and emotions associated with trauma. They may equate acknowledging the trauma with admitting that they’re not a “real” man, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The Connection Between Trauma and Substance Abuse
Symptoms of trauma and PTSD can be excruciating to live with, and it’s common for people with a history of trauma to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. According to a study published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, people with a substance use disorder are more than three times more likely than the general population to be diagnosed with PTSD, although many researchers believe that this is an underestimation.2
Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol almost always make symptoms of trauma worse. They reduce your ability to cope effectively with stress and negative emotions. But even when substance abuse transitions to addiction and dependence, many men resist seeking treatment out of fear of appearing weak. Men who do seek treatment may have a difficult time fully engaging in therapy.
Trauma-Informed Treatment Is Essential
An enormous body of research shows that successful recovery from a substance use disorder depends on addressing the range of issues underlying the substance abuse, including trauma. This typically occurs in treatment through cognitive-behavioral therapy, the most widely used talk therapy for addiction rehab.
Talk therapy involves exploring how the past shapes the present. It requires mentally re-experiencing an event and processing it in a new way in order to alter the effect it has on the present. But the very nature of the therapeutic process leaves individuals vulnerable and emotional. Talk therapy can be extremely difficult for men, who may have trouble expressing their emotions or communicating honestly with a therapist, especially about events or issues that leave them feeling embarrassed or ashamed.
Often, men are unable or unwilling to confront their emotional pain early on in recovery. A high-quality treatment program will provide trauma-informed care, which is a strengths-based approach that emphasizes rebuilding a sense of control. Trauma-informed care focuses on emotional, psychological and physical safety to ensure a higher level of engagement and a better treatment outcome.
Treatment works. It has helped countless trauma survivors end an addiction and reclaim their life. Working through trauma and overcoming a substance addiction aren’t easy tasks, but they’re highly rewarding and can dramatically improve your sense of well-being and quality of life.