Addressing Underlying Trauma and Substance Abuse


Trauma has powerful, long-lasting effects, and it can impact a person’s ability to cope with routine stress. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that there’s a strong link between trauma and substance abuse. Not only can trauma fuel the development of an addiction, but if left untreated it can also increase the likelihood of relapse after addiction treatment.

In order to break this damaging cycle, it’s important to address the underlying trauma as well as the addiction itself during substance abuse treatment.

What Is Trauma?

Narrowing down the definition of trauma can be tricky, because a situation or event that leaves one person traumatized might have minimal effect on another. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines trauma as a “single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and emotionally harmful and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”1

There are many experiences that can result in trauma: neglect, abuse, violent incidents, accidents, military combat and near-death experiences. According to research, over 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women have experienced a traumatic event in the past.

Underlying Trauma and Addiction

Experiencing trauma at some point in your life doesn’t guarantee that you’ll struggle with substance abuse, but studies indicate that trauma is a major factor in the development of an addiction. The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder states that up to 75 percent of individuals who have experienced violent or abusive trauma report problems with alcohol use.2 Drinking problems have also been reported in about a third of individuals who have survived traumatic illnesses or accidents.

Survivors of trauma often turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the painful feelings that result from their experiences, but the link between trauma and addiction runs even deeper than simple self-medication. Trauma can cause long-lasting changes within the brain, affecting activity in the amygdala and hippocampus.

Addressing Underlying Trauma and Substance Abuse

Because of these changes, a trauma survivor’s recollections can get caught in a sort of loop. The trauma survivor ends up dealing with recurring, intrusive memories instead of being able to file those thoughts away in a corner of their mind. The functioning of the brain’s cortex is also interrupted by trauma, leaving the trauma survivor with diminished ability to inhibit their behavior. This combination of changes in the brain leaves trauma survivors especially vulnerable to addictive behavior.

Getting Help

Because trauma and substance abuse are so strongly connected, it’s important for addiction treatment centers to take a compassionate, trauma-informed approach toward each client’s care. A traditional treatment program may contain countless triggers for a trauma survivor, and the symptoms of trauma are sometimes confused with mental illness. Trauma-informed treatment programs provide clients with a safe, secure environment that acknowledges the effects of trauma and encourages healing.

The connection between substance abuse and trauma is strong, and it can be difficult for people to break the cycle and move forward. If you or a loved one is struggling with the effects of trauma and substance abuse, know that help is available. By treating the emotional trauma as well as the substance abuse itself, it’s possible to put addiction into remission and heal the wounds of the past.



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