Connection Between Sexual Abuse and Addiction

The Connection Between Sexual Abuse and Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Every sixty-eight seconds, an American citizen becomes the victim of a sexual assault. That means that over 463,000 adults grapple with the shame and trauma of abuse each year. These harrowing numbers do not include the vast amount of people who were abused in childhood or are repeat victims. After the terror-filled event, these adults must seek ways to reconcile their trauma and move forward. Some coping mechanisms are more effective than others.

With these numbers, it is likely that you or someone you love has been sexually assaulted, making it a personal issue for us all. It may be hard to imagine how someone can function after this abuse. The sad fact is that many people do not.

Thousands of Americans turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate the symptoms of trauma associated with their assault. While substances may initially dull the pain, it often leads to dependency. This reliance begins a vicious cycle of shame and pain, leaving an already vulnerable individual struggling.

If you or someone you love is living with drug or alcohol addiction following sexual violence, there is hope. We’ve created this guide to help explain how assault can lead to addiction and how anyone can break the cycle with the proper support.

Read on to discover the link between assault and addiction.

Trauma From Sexual Abuse in Childhood

Children are an oppressed class. No other population has less choice, freedom, or agency over their lives. Young people must rely on adults to navigate life and meet their basic needs. Some adults will leverage their power to abuse the children left in their care.

The shocking statistics are that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience childhood sexual abuse. Frequently these children are abused by the adults they trust the most, leaving it unlikely that they will get the subsequent support to heal the trauma they endured.

PTSD, while a diagnosis dependent on trauma, is not the only marker for childhood abuse. Childhood sexual abuse is categorized as an ACE or an adverse childhood experience. Scientists have found that children with ACE can experience physical changes to the brain, which impacts their development. This alteration makes abused children far more susceptible to risky or addictive behaviors.

The more ACEs a child experiences, the more they are at risk for substance use disorder later in life. Children who experience sexual assault tend to experience more ACEs than children who do not.

Childhood Sexual Abuse and Addiction

Many childhood abuse survivors experience exaggerated responses to stressful situations. They may have extreme reactions to sensory stimulation, such as smells or physical sensations. Over time, this “nervous arousal” can lead individuals to seek ways to numb their brains and deescalate their reactions.

Not all children experience the same response to trauma. While some brains will cope with the abuse by overreaction and overstimulation, others may numb responses to protect the child. These individuals are also likely to turn to substances with the desire to “feel anything.”

It is common for abuse survivors to experience psychosomatic pain in the body, meaning their pain is genuine but has no physical cause outside of the mind. Medical professionals often dismiss these children. The rejection from the medical establishment may lead these individuals to use substances to control the physical pain that is otherwise ignored.

How Does Addiction Begin?

Engaging in risky behavior is a normal aspect of adolescent development, and adults may turn a blind eye to tweens or teens who try drugs or alcohol. When substances are easily accessible, young people find ways to self-medicate.

Children who experience abuse are more likely to live where substances are available. They may be the children of addicts or alcoholics. Their abuse may occur at home or as a result of addiction-related neglect.

This access and experimentation seem like fun and games until the struggling child or teen realizes that they can escape their pain through the use. The child may not try substances until college or early adulthood, but that discovery can rapidly lead to dependence and addiction.

Sexual Abuse and Addiction in Adults

Over half of all sexual abuse survivors are adults between eighteen and thirty-four. Believe it or not, the human brain does not finish developing until the mid to late twenties. It is not just the abused children who can have physical alterations to the brain after an assault; adults can too.

The way someone experiences and reacts to assault is unique. There may be some commonalities, but that oversimplifies an incredibly complex range of emotions and behavioral and physical adaptations an individual may go through. Many survivors express the pain of their lack of agency during the incident. It’s natural to crave control in the aftermath. Initially, substances can give survivors a sense of control because they determine how they feel and when. Unfortunately, drugs or alcohol will quickly take control of them instead.

Substances commonly play a role in the cause of sexual assaults. If an individual is under the influence, they cannot consent and will likely have less control over their physical body due to intoxication. Predators will often take advantage of or even encourage these altered states. Additionally, the predators themselves are likely to be using drugs or alcohol. In fact, in up to 65% of cases, abusers are under the influence at the time of the assault.

Due to the overwhelming availability of drugs and alcohol, they are an accessible balm for deep emotional injury. The more severe the trauma, the more likely the victim will seek self-medication to survive.

Sexual Abuse and PTSD

PTSD is not a diagnosis that only impacts military veterans or victims of specific violence. Any traumatic experience can trigger a post-traumatic stress response. PTSD sometimes looks “invisible” because the symptoms are internal and easy to hide.

A diagnosis of PTSD does not mean defeat. It is a valid, treatable mental health condition. When exploring mental health or drug and alcohol treatment, assault survivors should consider a trauma-informed program, such as the one we offer at Sunshine Care Centers.

Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Physical pain in the body
  • Headaches
  • Poor sleep, nightmares, and fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Intrusive thoughts or memories 
  • Strong startle reflex
  • Changes in self-image
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Problems maintaining or forming relationships
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hyperawareness
  • Avoidance of certain people, places, or things

Assault and trauma can negatively impact an individual’s physical health over time. It can make it more difficult or survivors to engage in normal sexual relationships. Responses may include avoiding intimacy or hypersexual behaviors. No survivor deserves to live with these symptoms. Hold compassion for those who attempt to manage these painful symptoms with drugs and alcohol. The aftermath of abuse is unimaginable. Unfortunately, using substances as a coping mechanism frequently leads to dependency, bringing many problems survivors would have otherwise avoided. Early intervention is critical, and we recommend that victims seek help as soon as possible.

Recovery from Assault and Addiction

Choosing recovery will change your life. Admittedly, it is a big step, but there is no better gift to give yourself or a loved one who has suffered assault and addiction. In sobriety, you set aside an accessible, harmful coping mechanism in exchange for freedom. It can be terrifying to face the underlying emotions and experiences that triggered addictive behavior, but it is a vital step to recovery from the events.

First, give yourself credit for surviving. Just because assault is common, it does not make it any less remarkable that you made it out alive. You coped the best way you knew how, and now with education, you’ve learned there are healthier, happier ways to live. These traumatic events and subsequent addictions are devastating and debilitating, and you are a miracle for getting yourself this far.

If you are considering trauma therapy, you are on the path to healing your physical and mental health. At Sunshine Care Centers, we offer dual-diagnosis care. That means our suite of medical and addiction specialists treat trauma and substance abuse simultaneously. Our staff understands that each patient has unique values and life experiences that must reflect in their treatment plan. We are trained to teach coping mechanisms that aid mental health and addiction recovery.

We have therapists trained in EMDR therapy, which has been remarkably successful with trauma survivors and those with PTSD. EMDR is a safe way to access and reestablish how past events are recalled and felt in the body. 

When combined with cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapies, clients can understand and adapt their behaviors for the future. These tools have proven indispensable on the road to recovery for sexual assault survivors.

What to Expect at Sunshine Care Centers

Sunshine Care Centers has a varied and flexible offering of treatment programs. We offer partial hospitalization programs (PHP), intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), outpatient services (OP), as well as sober living and transitional housing.

Each of these levels of care offers different intensities and time commitments.

IOP is a popular treatment option, offering comprehensive care with a lower time commitment than inpatient or partial hospitalization. IOP is a good option for those with work, school, or caregiving responsibilities.

PHP is similar to IOP in that you are housed off-site, but you will be a “full-time” patient otherwise, requiring you to suspend your previous daily activities.

We suggest our outpatient program for someone who is at low risk of relapse or has already been through a more intensive program. OP comes with the lowest level of time commitment, typically 12-15 hours a week. OP is best for someone unable to disrupt their daily life entirely.

Sunshine Care Centers is proud to include music therapy in all treatment plans. Music therapy is a low-stakes, high-reward healing modality that offers a safe and engaging space to process emotions.

Every treatment plan at Sunshine Care Centers is unique and personalized. To start, we will have a confidential assessment between you or a loved one and our support staff. We will help to contact your insurance and find the best fit for your time and budget. With that information, we can offer you the most beneficial treatment options.

At our centers, you will participate in group and individual therapies.

At Sunshine Care Centers, our goal is sustainability. We want you to be successful in recovery for the rest of your life. After treatment, we will support you in finding the appropriate ongoing care to thrive beyond our program.

Finding Hope and Freedom From Trauma and Addiction

Sexual violence does not discriminate; it impacts individuals of all ages and genders. Do not feel ashamed of the choices you made to cope with unspeakable events. You are alive, and with that, there is hope. Encourage yourself to take your next best steps to freedom from trauma and addiction. Trauma-informed therapy for drug and alcohol addiction can help you or someone you love reclaim their lives and achieve recovery.

Sunshine Care Centers has a suite of medical, therapeutic, and addiction professionals with over 30 years of experience. We pride ourselves on a clean, compassionate, and secure environment that encourages recovery. We use evidence-based addiction treatment with flexible programs that cater to your needs.  

If you or someone you love is struggling with trauma or addiction in North Texas or Southern California, we are here to help.

Speak to a specialist at Sunshine Care Centers by calling 883-597-CARE or message us today! 


Related Readings: 

Feedback Informed Treatment

Children of Addicts