Trauma and Addiction: What is the Link?

The word trauma may bring up all sorts of associations with specific experiences that are distressing or life-threatening.

The word addiction may bring up images of those who struggle with substance abuse disorders, such as alcoholism or drug addiction.

Trauma and addiction are two complex issues with a strong correlation, but the “why” is often misunderstood. 

Understanding the link between trauma and addiction is vital in developing effective treatment strategies to help individuals overcome their addiction and live healthy lives.

So, what exactly is the correlation between trauma and addiction? 

The answer is complicated, so let’s unpack it.

Effects of traumatic experiences

Trauma shapes who someone becomes and how they view the world and should never be taken lightly.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event, such as an accident, rape, or natural disaster.”

Trauma is the result of a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that can have significant physical, psychological, and emotional impacts on an individual.

It’s important to note that trauma is subjective. For example, two people could go through the same event – or series of events – and experience it very differently. As SAMHSA observed, “A particular event may be experienced as traumatic for one individual and not for another.” 

Single woman alone swinging on the beach. Generative AI

Some examples of traumatic events include:

  • Car accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Violence
  • Sexual assault
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Parental neglect
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Chronic disease

Traumatic experiences can produce profound life-changing effects on someone long term. 

Here are a few ways trauma can shape someone’s life:

Changes in brain function

Trauma can change how the brain functions, particularly in the areas associated with memory, emotion regulation, and stress response. These changes can lead to symptoms such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, and difficulty managing emotions.

Development of coping mechanisms

Trauma survivors may develop coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional and psychological distress. These coping mechanisms may be positive, such as seeking social support or practising mindfulness. However, they may also be destructive, such as substance use or self-harm.

Changes in self-perception

Man Staring Ahead

Trauma can also impact a person’s self-perception, which may lead them to feel shame and low self-esteem. Survivors may also struggle with a sense of loss of control and feel as though they are powerless to prevent future traumatic events.

Broken relationships

Trauma can alter a person’s relationships with others, and they may struggle with trust and vulnerability. They may also find it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships due to fear of abandonment, rejection, or future trauma.

Impact on worldview

Trauma can shake a person’s beliefs about the world and their place in it. Survivors may struggle with feelings of existential crisis, questioning the meaning and purpose of life and where they belong.

What does the research say about trauma and addiction?

Research consistently shows that a strong relationship exists between trauma and substance abuse. In addition, studies have shown that individuals who have experienced trauma are more likely to develop addiction problems compared to those who have not.

One of the most notable studies, the Adverse Childhood Experience Study or ACE study, was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997.

The researchers studied over 17,000 participants to investigate the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and health outcomes later in life.

The study found a strong correlation between the number of adverse childhood experiences and negative health outcomes, such as chronic diseases, mental health disorders, and substance abuse.

Other research studies have backed up the ACE study’s findings. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are at a higher risk of developing substance abuse issues later in life. SAMHSA also reports that more than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.

Research also shows that trauma can affect the brain’s reward system, leading to irregular patterns of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. This dysregulation can increase the desire to seek out substances or behaviours that produce pleasurable feelings.

sadness and depression

Additionally, studies report that trauma can lead to a range of negative emotional states, such as:

  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Fear

Some people may try to cope with these overwhelming feelings by turning to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions.

Escaping painful emotions through using addictive substances may seem like a quick and easy way to escape the painful memories or numb the emotions associated with trauma. However, substance use can quickly become a vicious cycle that leads to addiction, making it increasingly difficult to break free.

One point is clear from research on the link between trauma and addiction:

Not everyone who goes through trauma will fall into addiction, but most of those who do struggle with addiction have been through traumatic life experiences.

Dual diagnosis: PTSD and addiction

Dual diagnosis refers to the co-occurrence of a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder. In the case of trauma and addiction, this means that an individual is experiencing symptoms of both PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and addiction to drugs, alcohol, or other substances.

PTSD is a treatable mental health disorder that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event.

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Hypervigilance
  • Avoiding certain places or people
  • Negative changes in mood and thinking

Addiction is a “treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.”

Addiction is considered a brain disease because drugs and addictive behaviours change the structure and function of the brain over time, leading to a loss of self-control and a strong urge to continue using drugs or engaging in the behaviour, even in the face of negative consequences.

American Addiction Centers report that those diagnosed with PTSD are three times more likely to abuse substances.

The co-occurrence of PTSD and addiction can be challenging to treat since both conditions can interact and exacerbate each other. For example, individuals with PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the intense emotions and distressing memories associated with their trauma. Substance abuse can then worsen symptoms of PTSD, making it more difficult to manage.

Additionally, substance abuse can make it more difficult to treat PTSD effectively. Drugs and alcohol can interfere with the effectiveness of medications used to treat mental health disorders, such as antidepressants or antipsychotics. Substance abuse can also make it more difficult for individuals to engage in therapy or other forms of treatment.

Treating addiction and trauma

Group therapy session sitting in a circle. Sunbeam background. Selective focus.

Effective treatment for dual diagnosis of addiction and PTSD typically involves an integrated, holistic approach that addresses both conditions simultaneously.

This may include a combination of:

It’s important to note that recovery from addiction and trauma is a journey, and everyone’s journey is unique. The road to recovery can be challenging, but it’s possible with the right support, treatment, and resources.

However, understanding the link between trauma and addiction can help individuals and their loved ones better understand the complexities of addiction and develop effective treatment strategies that can lead to a healthier and more fulfilling life.

Trauma-informed addiction treatment

Research has also shown that trauma-informed addiction treatment can effectively treat addiction in individuals who have experienced trauma. Trauma-informed addiction treatment is an approach that focuses on the impact of trauma on a person’s physical and emotional health, and psychological well-being.

This approach recognizes that many people who seek addiction treatment services have experienced trauma at some point in their lives and that this trauma needs to be addressed to aid recovery and significantly reduce the risk of relapse. 

Trauma-informed addiction treatment acknowledges the link between trauma and addiction and seeks to create a safe and supportive environment that addresses the root causes of addiction to ensure long-lasting recovery.

Some final points

Trauma is subjective—everyone reacts to traumatic events and experiences differently, and what adversely affects one person may not affect another at all. 

The symptoms of trauma can range from mild to severe, and may be short-lived or persist over several days, weeks, months or even years.

The link between trauma and addiction is well-established in research.

Substance abuse and addiction are common among those who have been through traumatic experiences.

Effective treatment for dual diagnosis of trauma and addiction requires an integrated, holistic approach that addresses both conditions simultaneously.

Recovery from trauma and addiction can be a long and challenging journey, but with the right support and resources, it is possible to heal and regain a sense of control over your life.

How can Camino Recovery help?

At Camino Recovery we believe that when you “resolve the trauma, you resolve the problem.” 

All of our therapy is built on focusing on the individual’s past trauma and addressing that first.

We offer individualised treatment plans for our clients—all in our beautiful facility in Spain, with luxurious suites and breathtaking views.

Contact one of our specialists at Camino Recovery today to learn more about our treatment programs.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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