Does Trauma Always Lead To Addiction?

For people with addictions, whether substance abuse or process addictions, understanding the various pathways that lead to addictive behaviours is critical to getting proper treatment and support.

The connection between trauma and addiction

Awareness of substance abuse is one of the keys to helping people understand what causes them to drink, take illicit drugs, or engage in specific behaviours that might not serve them.

Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find any literature on addiction that does not include trauma as one of the leading causes of substance abuse.

Numbing painful memories

For those who have experienced profound trauma in their lives, numbing out painful memories can be an attractive prospect – and as a temporary measure, people often turn to alcohol and drugs to numb or forget disturbing memories from the past.

But the keyword in the above paragraph is ”temporary.”

Once the initial ”high” of alcohol or drug use subsides, painful feelings and memories come flooding back – and the individual may find themselves trapped in a cycle of avoidance behaviours to keep challenging emotions at bay.

Trauma and substance abuse

Living in fear, dread, or terror and not knowing whether anyone will come and rescue you is often the reality for many trauma survivors, particularly those with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Feeling scared, isolated and without a sense of safety or control are some of the hallmarks of a traumatic story.

Such events may lead to addiction later on as a person struggles to find a way to cope with their experiences.

It can be exhausting to keep disturbing memories at bay, this might be easier to do on a good day, but on a bad day, when a person’s motivation is low, their coping skills become compromised as traumatic memories resurface.

Coupled with the stress of daily expectations and demands, it’s not surprising that substance use has become a coping mechanism for many.

Childhood trauma

For young children in the crucial stages of development, these early experiences often become the lens through which they see the world. As a result, such children learn that the world is unsafe and people cannot be trusted. 

People with a history of trauma often did not get the help and support they needed at the time. Essential services were unavailable to them, and there was likely no advocate to offer protection and nurturing.

Traumatic events

Woman seeking help hands up

Studies show that as well as the event itself, what makes an experience traumatic is the lack of a safe adult to rely on for safety and support. Long-term traumatic experiences can lead to myriad complications – such experiences may include:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Abandonment

Lack of safety and protection

Unfortunately, in cases of child abuse or neglect, it is often the case that the source of protection is also the source of dread and terror.

For instance, in domestic abuse cases, the mother or father in charge of providing a safe, loving environment for a child is also the source of fear and the reason for needing to escape.

Writer and researcher Deena McMahon explains that ”when the hand that rocks the cradle is also the hand that hurts, the experience becomes traumatic for the child” (Deena McMahon, The Imprint, When Trauma Slips into Addiction, 17th December 2018).

The link between trauma and addiction

Childhood trauma and addiction are profoundly linked, with many experts believing that trauma is directly associated with substance abuse and other addictions.

Trauma can lead to addiction.

Studies show that in the U.S., seven out of ten adults have experienced a traumatic event in the past, with at least twenty percent of trauma victims later developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Moreover, around one in ten U.S. citizens are addicted to either drugs or alcohol.

Such statistics show the profound correlation between trauma and addiction and how interconnected substance abuse and trauma are.

Defining trauma

According to SAMHSA (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), trauma is any event or circumstance that impacts physical, mental, social, or emotional well-being.

The effects of childhood trauma

Sad woman thinking alone

A person can be significantly affected by their early experiences – their physical and mental health can take a huge hit, and it can be challenging for people with no such history to understand the impact of trauma.

Traumatised people often find themselves isolated and alone, and it seems there are no clear answers to why they feel the way they do; the experience is often senseless and confusing, which is why so many people turn to alcohol or drugs.

Many addiction experts state that trauma and addiction are two sides of the same coin, and much evidence supports this claim.

Substance use and childhood trauma

Canadian physician Gabor Mate offers a holistic perspective on the connection between trauma and substance abuse.

Addiction and trauma

Dr. Gabor Mate believes that stress, injury, past abuse, and hurt either cause or impact substance abuse and addiction.

According to Mate, people are unaware that they are traumatised; they just think they are addicts, and most are unaware they use addiction to soothe a deep pain rooted in trauma. Mate explains that addiction is the person’s unconscious attempt to escape pain (Dr. Gabor Mate).

Statistics

One of the main questions around substance abuse and trauma is which one came first. Was it the addiction that led to trauma or the trauma that caused the addiction?

Experts say that trauma and addiction are a two-way street – for example, substance use disorders increase the likelihood of re-traumatisation due to high-risk behaviours.

On the other hand, trauma increases the risk of addiction and substance abuse.

Additional statistics

Healing Shame Addiction 2

Some studies show the prevalence rates of trauma and substance abuse – for instance, research shows that:

  • Individuals with five or more adverse childhood experiences are seven to ten times more likely to become addicted to substances.
  • Approximately two-thirds of intravenous drug users report traumatic childhood experiences.
  • People with three or more adverse childhood experiences are more prone to experience other issues (and not just addiction), such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, and domestic violence.

Trauma and addiction studies

Other studies show that up to ninety-seven percent of homeless women with mental health problems report severe physical or sexual abuse.

Moreover, twelve to thirty-four percent of people receiving inpatient treatment for substance abuse have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lastly, seventy-five percent of men and women in addiction treatment report a history of trauma and abuse.

Seeking comfort and connection.

To cope with the trauma of a complicated past, it’s unsurprising that many people seek comfort and connection in unhealthy ways.

An individual steeped in fear, anxiety, shame, and dread requires a level of comfort and connection but does not know or has not been taught how to get such things healthily.

If you haven’t been taught something, how can you instinctively know what’s right and what isn’t?

Of course, most people know that excessive use of substances is not good for them, but they are unaware of the trauma behind the addiction – a huge aspect of their past that fuels unhealthy behaviours.

A traumatised individual is driven to seek fulfillment and relief. Whether this is accomplished through gambling, compulsive shopping, or drug or alcohol use, the void needs to be filled somehow.

Addiction cycle

However, the feelings of shame and emptiness are pervasive and overwhelming for many; thus, the addictive cycle continues.

The various needs of trauma survivors can be insatiable due to unmet needs in childhood; essentially, the person gets left with a difficult-to-fill- void. 

Yet, many individuals are often unaware of the source of their sadness, emptiness, or despair, so they attempt to fill it with whatever makes them feel better, less empty, and alone.

Many people seek relief in substances and specific behaviours that provide them with temporary solace.

However, such measures only provide short-term relief. In the long run, if a person’s trauma remains unresolved, they are likely to continue down the path of destruction that often leads to addiction.

Addiction can damage healthy relationships.

Alcoholic man and depressed wife in kitchen

With addiction, what people are seeking is comfort and safety.

Yet the opposite often occurs since substance abuse prohibits connection and can sometimes sever relationships entirely – the opposite of what the person seeks.

Stimulants such as cocaine and heroin increase the dopamine in the brain – such substances send a rush of feel-good chemicals, including relief and release, which can feel great at first.

However, the long-term effects of drug use can significantly affect a person’s health, relationships, and entire life. 

The ”high” is temporary, but the adverse effects of drug abuse extend beyond the initial rush, sometimes creating long-lasting damage for the individual and the people around them.

Co-occurring mental health conditions

Many people with substance use disorders have co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders, all of which could be caused by trauma.

Finding recovery

Since addiction and trauma are interconnected, treatment programs must take a holistic approach to recovery.

Trauma and addiction should be addressed and treated as co-occurring. For example, a person with an alcohol use disorder and depression must get treated concurrently (i.e., both conditions get treated simultaneously).

Moreover, any feelings of anger, shame, regret, isolation, and fear must also get addressed in treatment where the person learns healthier ways of coping – without this approach; a person may struggle to see the advantages of sobriety.

People who use substances do not engage in this behaviour because it’s exciting or fun; they do it because it offers relief from an unbearable internal experience (Deena McMahon, The Imprint, When Trauma Slips into Addiction, 17th December 2018).

Moreover, recovery is about finding safety within the framework of a relationship, which involves healthy connections, forgiveness, and acceptance (Deena McMahon, The Imprint, When Trauma Slips into Addiction, 17th December 2018).

Contact Camino Recovery

We specialise in treating various addictions and mental health disorders at Camino Recovery.

Our specialist trauma programs allow individuals to address their addictive behaviours and the root cause, allowing them to lead happy and fulfilling lives despite their past experiences.

We offer comprehensive treatment programs for alcohol, drug, and behavioural addictions and mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and trauma.

Treatment options for addiction, trauma, and other mental health disorders include cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR, individual and group therapy, equine therapy, and holistic wellness therapy.

Contact a specialist today to find out more.

Helpful resources

  1. When Trauma Slips into Addiction: The Imprint, Deena McMahon, 17th December 2018
  2. How to Treat Trauma and Addiction: Psychology Today, Lantie Elisabeth Jorandby, M.D. 21st July 2022
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