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Are Trauma and Addiction Connected?

Millions of Americans suffer from addiction and substance dependence. Addiction continues to be heavily stigmatized and often criminalized despite current research showing that it is often influenced by numerous mental and psychological problems, including trauma. For this reason, addiction treatment has advanced significantly over the past 20 years to treat the underlying causes such as trauma, anxiety, depression and many other disorders.

Understanding the link between trauma and addiction can help you understand not only how someone can become addicted, but also the underlying causes behind relapse and continued substance use even after being treated for addiction. It will also help you see the value in seeking treatment for the effects of trauma instead of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs as a means to prevent addiction.

What Is Trauma?

In general, trauma can be defined as a psychological and emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. When loosely applied, this trauma definition can refer to something upsetting such as:

  • being involved in an accident

  • having an illness or injury

  • losing a loved one

  • going through a divorce

  • witnessing upsetting events

However, it also encompasses more extreme experiences such as:

  • rape or torture

  • physical and sexual abuse

  • verbal and emotional abuse

  • life-altering or life-threatening illness

  • natural disasters

  • events of war

  • losing a loved one to murder, suicide or overdose

The common thread that runs through all these individual’s lives is that the trauma creates changes in their brain, behavior and mental health that are similar regardless of the cause of the trauma.

It is important to note here as well that research has shown clearly that it is not the events that occur in a situation that determine the effects. It is the person’s perception of the events and their interpretation of the events are paramount in determining if the person remains traumatized over time.

How Does Trauma Affect Us?

Trauma can leave a person feeling shocked aggressive, hopeless or depressed. Confusion can be extremely high. Anxiety can raise off the charts even when trying to perform simple tasks, and many trauma survivors tell me they feel changed forever. Trauma can permanently or semi-permanently impact the brain and how it functions depending on age, how long the trauma goes untreated and the extent of post-traumatic stress. This is especially true for children, where long-term exposure to trauma can actually change the physical makeup of the brain.

Symptoms of trauma include:

  • increased stress response

  • increased anxiety

  • decreased concentration

  • panic or paranoia

  • problems with emotional regulation

Symptoms can range from moderate to severe anxiety or extreme problems with panic attacks, mood swings and even rage.

Because events are viewed subjectively, the broad trauma definition is more of a guideline and varies by individual. Everyone processes a traumatic event differently because we all face them through the lens of prior experiences in our lives. For example: one person might be upset and fearful after going through a hurricane, but someone else might have lost family and barely escaped from a flooded home during Hurricane Katrina. In this case, a minor Category One hurricane may bring up traumatic flashbacks of their terrifying experience causing them to relive the previous trauma.

Link Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

Data dating back to the 1990s shows that trauma is heavily linked to addiction and susceptibility to addiction. The most notable studies show that as many as 40% of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder patients suffer from some form of substance use disorder. This number drops to between 20 and 25% for car-crash and murder survivors not suffering from PTSD – who still often use substances to cope with high levels of stress and emotional pain after these traumatic events.

Children, especially those exposed to trauma before the age of 13, are as much as 50% likely to develop a mental disorder or substance use disorder after a traumatic event. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study also directly links early childhood trauma to increased susceptibility to addiction. Neglect, abuse, addicted parents, mental illness, car accidents, deaths in the family, domestic violence and other forms of traumatic experiences all increase the chances the child would become an addict.

Why Trauma Patients Use Substances to Cope

Anyone experiencing anxiety, depression, or pain from trauma is likely to seek out coping mechanisms, and drugs and alcohol are very common choices. Many people use alcohol, prescription drugs and even illicit drugs to seek stress relief or temporary relaxation and even sleep. Substance abuse can temporarily relieve even painful traumatic emotions and memories – but with tolerance, will cease to create the same effects. Users who are drinking or using to relieve stress quickly become hooked, chasing that same feeling of relief. This same process also leads to emotional blunting and worsened trauma and anxiety symptoms, causing further reliance on substances. Because this process is often slow, building up over many months or even years, most people never notice the effects until they are completely ‘hooked’ on the drug.

How Is Trauma Treated?

Because trauma reactions fall across a wide spectrum, psychologists have developed categories to differentiate between types of trauma. Among them are:

  • complex trauma

  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • developmental trauma disorder

Because the effects of trauma on the brain and psychological well-being from various traumatic events is similar, treatment is similar for many different types of trauma. Thus, trauma resolution therapy can be used for many different kinds of trauma using the same techniques.

Exposure therapy, mindfulness and hypnotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy, EMDR, tapping, and rapid resolution therapy (which combines several of these modalities) are some of the methods that have proven to be effective and received great support in the literature.


In my practice I have assisted survivors of sexual abuse, individuals physically deformed from injuries in car crashes or work-related accidents, soldiers who have witnessed horrible injuries, deaths and sometimes taken lives as their duties demand. I often help parents of alcoholics and addicts who have to watch their child suffer in the grip of the disease of addiction or have witnessed the death of the child due to overdose. I have also worked with families going through a divorce or struggling with blended families. The common thread that runs through all these clients’ lives is that the trauma creates changes in their brain, behavior and mental health that are similar regardless of the causality of the trauma.

The good news is that an experienced and highly skilled therapist using best practice methods can help an individual resolve the traumatic experiences and gain strength beyond what they originally had. Many of the survivors who have been treated successfully share stories of renewed hope and even more passion for life and clarity of purpose than they had prior to the trauma. Self-confidence and the feeling of personal power also can be the gifts of resolving trauma. Trauma clients frequently tell me that they seem to have a clarity about what really is important in life. Properly treated survivors also say they spend a lot less time pursuing things that really don’t have any substance.

If you or a loved one is experiencing the effects of trauma, it is very important for you to seek out professional help. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I may be of assistance to you or your loved ones. My website provides more information on my practice and how to contact me with questions or to take advantage of a free 20-minute phone appointment.

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