Trauma, Tension Reduction & Self-Medication in Substance Abuse

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How do things like trauma and stress lead people to become addicts? In this lesson, we'll answer that question by looking at the way trauma, tension reduction, and self-medication can lead to substance abuse and addiction.

Substance Abuse

Jessica is going through a very tough time right now. Last semester, she was sexually assaulted, and since then she's been very depressed. She drinks alcohol more often and has started taking her roommate's prescription sleeping pills to help her relax.

Jessica is engaging in substance abuse, or the misuse or overuse of alcohol or other drugs. Though she's of legal drinking age, Jessica is drinking alcohol almost daily, until she blacks out, which is an example of overusing a substance. Meanwhile, even if she follows the instructions on the bottle, using her roommate's prescription is an example of misusing a substance.

Jessica has never had a substance abuse issue before, so what is it that's causing it now? To investigate, let's look at the ways in which trauma, self-medication, and tension reduction all impact substance use and abuse.

Trauma & Self-Medication

You might have noticed that Jessica's substance abuse began shortly after she was sexually assaulted. This is not uncommon.

Trauma can lead to substance abuse and addiction. Though surviving a trauma does not guarantee issues with alcohol and drugs, numerous studies have shown that trauma increases the risk that someone will engage in substance abuse. Further, studies have shown that many addicts have suffered trauma in their past.

Why? There are several theories about the connection between trauma and substance abuse. One is that people like Jessica are self-medicating, or abusing substances in order to alleviate psychological or physical pain. In Jessica's case, she's using sleeping pills and alcohol to deal with the stress and trauma of her sexual assault.

Another theory about why trauma might lead to addiction is that trauma, particularly childhood trauma, can actually change the brain's chemistry and structure. The areas of the brain that enable us to cope with and recover from pain are damaged or never develop. The inability relieve pain healthily can make a person susceptible to substance abuse and addiction.

Tension Reduction Theory

Sometimes, it's not a big trauma that can cause issues such as substance abuse, but everyday stress and tension. For example, Jessica and her friends always end up drinking too much and using drugs right around midterms and finals time. They're stressed out and just looking for a way to release that stress.

The tension reduction theory of substance abuse says that substance abuse is a way of trying to reduce tension and stress. It is, in essence, a type of self-medication, but this theory is focusing on the specific goal of reducing tension and stress, not trying to alleviate pain or deal with trauma. So, when Jessica gets overly stressed because she has a paper and a big test coming up, she might take drugs or drink a little too much to try to forget the stress she's experiencing.

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