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Overcoming Traumatic Experiences in Alcohol and Drug Settings

A history of trauma is incredibly common amongst people receiving alcohol and other drug treatment.

Research suggests around 80% of alcohol and other drug treatment clients have experienced at least one traumatic event, with nearly half (45%) screening positive for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are a number of persistent myths about trauma recovery that can hinder how treatment and support are provided in AOD settings. Providers fear that talking about trauma does more harm than good, or that people need to address alcohol and drug problems before tackling trauma symptoms

However, recovery from experiences of trauma is possible with evidence-based treatment. Neglecting trauma symptoms might actually be a reason some people don’t do well in alcohol and drug treatment.

Exposure to Traumatic Events Is Common

Traumatic events are powerful and upsetting incidents that intrude into daily life. They usually involve a significant threat to a person’s life, their physical or psychological wellbeing.

Traumatic experiences are incredibly common. Around 75% of adult Australians have been exposed to potentially traumatic events, with more than 68% of children and adolescents experiencing a potentially traumatic event by the age of 16.

Exposure to traumatic events is very common amongst vulnerable and disadvanged people, including individuals experiencing homelessness and people seeking treatment for serious mental health conditions.

Most people who experience a traumatic event recover without treatment. However, for some people trauma does have significant impacts.

Whilst post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly discussed, there are a wide range of possible mental health responses to trauma (anxiety and substance use disorder being the most common).

Other common responses include problematic anger, grief, social isolation and difficulties with employment. There is a high rate of co-morbidity of disorders in response to trauma. 

Treating Trauma

Evidence-based treatment of traumatic related conditions can include both Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, trauma-focussed cognitive behaviour therapy including Imaginal and in vivo exposure, and trauma-focussed cognitive therapy, including cognitive processing therapy (CPT).

There is good evidence to support recovery from trauma using these evidence-based interventions. 

Becoming Trauma Informed

Alcohol and other drugs are commonly used as coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma symptoms.

As a short term coping strategy AOD use may offer some relief. But when people continue to use alcohol and drugs to cope, this tends to overlay a second set of problems. Alcohol and drug use can also perpetuate initial trauma symptoms and complicate recovery. In this way, AOD and trauma can become self-perpetuating.

Because of this interrelationship between alcohol and other drug use and trauma, it’s important for the AOD sector to be both trauma-informed and responsive to trauma. Working with AOD and trauma involves understanding the relationship between the two and ensuring that interventions can support holistic recovery.