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The Common Link Between Trauma and Addiction


Underneath most addictions, there are mental and emotional factors that drive a person to abuse substances in the first place. When it comes to trauma, there is a distinct correlation between substance abuse, addiction, and childhood trauma. After all, the events of a person’s childhood play an important role in his or her mental and emotional development. Traumatic experiences often have profound effects on the way a person copes with their emotions and reacts to situations. 

Trauma can create many long-term emotional and psychological issues that continue on into adulthood. Unfortunately, these experiences may cause a person to self-medicate and abuse substances to cope. However, trauma-informed care can help a person heal from the past and promote better health outcomes. Therefore, if a person who suffers from addiction has experienced trauma, it is critical to address and treat his or her trauma.

Defining Trauma

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event, such as an accident, rape, or natural disaster.[1] Any time a person fears his or her safety, they are experiencing trauma. Trauma can be anything that puts a person’s physical or emotional well-being at risk of harm. Whether it is trauma from domestic abuse or emotional neglect, trauma can take a serious toll on victims. Each person is affected differently by trauma, so the effects of traumatic events vary from person to person. Immediately after traumatic events, shock, denial, and anger are common reactions. However, long term reactions as a result of trauma can include: 

  • Unpredictable emotions
  • Flashbacks
  • Strained relationships
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty coping

Some examples of traumatic experiences include:

  • Car accidents
  • Bullying
  • Violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Unstable home life
  • Natural disasters
  • Intense pain
  • Chronic disease
  • Verbal abuse
  • Parental neglect

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that 51% of women and 61% of men have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. In addition, 90% of clients in behavioral health settings have experienced trauma. 

Making the Connection

Mental health experts have been studying the strong connection between substance abuse and addiction for many years. One study, Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study, looked at 17,000 patients to uncover the link between trauma and addiction. The study found that a child who experiences four or more traumatic events is five times more likely than his or her counterparts to suffer from alcohol use disorder and is 46 times more likely to become an intravenous drug user.[3]

Furthermore, some people develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of untreated trauma. The PTSD Alliance estimates that 50% of people who suffer from PTSD abuse alcohol. In addition, they estimate that people with PTSD are three times more likely to abuse drugs.[4]

Without professional help, trauma and PTSD can be devastating. After all, they can make day-to-day tasks and relationships extremely difficult. When the emotional pain becomes too much, people may turn to drugs or alcohol to hope. While the relief from substance abuse may work temporarily, this is an unhealthy way to cope with emotions. Sometimes, this substance abuse becomes compulsive and habitual. As a result, a person who abuses drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma can easily become addicted. 

When addiction and trauma co-exist, an individual’s lifestyle begins to deteriorate. He or she may begin experiencing worsening anxiety, depression, and mood swings. In addition, maintaining employment and personal relationships becomes increasingly difficult. People who suffer from addiction typically act out in destructive and risky behaviors as well, potentially putting the person at risk of experiencing further traumatization.

Treating Addiction and Trauma

Years of self-medicating to dull out trauma can create unique obstacles in the path to recovery. Consequently, people suffering from trauma and addiction benefit immensely from professional addiction treatment and trauma therapy. If trauma is left untreated, a person may work endlessly to stay sober only to find themselves replacing substance abuse with other addictive, dangerous coping habits. As a result, before one can recover from addiction, he or she must begin healing from past trauma. 

When treating trauma and addiction, it is important that a person has a therapist who is compassionate, trustworthy, and understanding. Building trust with a therapist is the best way for a person to open up about the past. Many evidence-driven therapies can help a person heal from trauma and learn positive coping mechanisms. Some therapies used to treat trauma include:

“With a comprehensive treatment plan that includes multiple levels of care (partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, outpatient) you or your loved one can rest assured that our addiction specialists will get to the underlying root causes of substance abuse for complete inner healing.”

Comprehensive addiction treatment centers in Fort Lauderdale work directly with behavioral therapy and trauma-informed care to provide trauma survivors with the best possible treatment. In addition, each person’s addiction and trauma is unique, so it is important that a person has an individualized treatment plan that is specified to meet his or her needs.



Call the Agape Treatment Center admissions team at 888-614-0077 to learn more about what our addiction and mental health facilities can do for you or your loved one.

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