trauma and addiction

understanding trauma and addiction

Traumatic experiences have a strong correlation with future struggles with addiction. It is important to take trauma seriously and to seek treatment.

What is Trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.1 Trauma affects people differently, and it should be taken very seriously. High levels of stress can hinder a child’s or adult’s brain development.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Trauma triggers toxic stress chemicals within the brain, causing damage over time. When someone is stressed for long periods, it can rewire the brain impacting activity and emotions.2

Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

There is a clear connection between people who suffered from childhood trauma and addiction. If someone had at least four traumatic encounters, they are way more likely to develop alcohol user disorder, more likely to develop substance use disorder, and 60% more likely to become obese.3 Additionally, one’s environment can be a significant link. If someone is around specific substances and needs a way to cope, the substances can become a way of self-medication.


Types of Trauma

There are multiple types of traumatic events that can happen in a person’s life. Each one can affect a person differently, so it is important to not assume that one person will react the same way to trauma as another person.



How Different Types of Trauma Link to Addiction

There is a clear link between traumatic events and addiction. Most people that struggle with addiction have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life. Different types of trauma are related to addiction in certain ways.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Addiction

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center, adverse childhood experiences can predict earlier age of alcohol exposure, higher risks of mental health disorders, use of tobacco, prescription drug use, the chance of substance use disorder, and dependency. 5

PTSD and Addiction

Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur after experiences traumatic events. This link is believed to be due to a person attempting to self-medicate to better manage the side effects of PTSD. It is also believed this correlation can go both ways. If a person struggles with substance use disorder, they are more likely to experience new traumatic events and vice versa. 6

Physical Trauma and Addiction

Physical trauma and abuse lead to a lot of bodily pain. Many times, people will be prescribed pain killers to cope numb their feelings. If someone is experiencing higher amounts of physical trauma, they are more likely to take more than the prescribed dose to help mitigate the pain, but higher doses can lead to a higher risk of addiction. It is believed this is one of the main reasons for the opioid epidemic inside of the United States today.

Emotional Trauma and Addiction

Emotional trauma can be more difficult to trace. Things such as bullying or emotional abuse can lead to mental health issues later in life, such as depression or anxiety. People who suffer from emotional trauma are more likely to struggle with addiction because they might use substances to numb the pain, deal with PTSD, or escape.



Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

There are several different signs and symptoms of trauma. All these symptoms and signs are completely normal when someone faces such adverse events or circumstances.

Physical Signs

Some physical signs of trauma are as follows 7

  • Insomnia
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Easily startled or scared/anxious
  • Troubles focusing
  • Nightmares
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Agitation or always being on edge
  • Body aches and pains
  • Muscle tension

Behavioral Signs

On top of physical signs, people might show behavioral symptoms or signs, too. They are:7

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion
  • Troubles focusing
  • Guilt or shame
  • Blaming yourself
  • Disbelief or shock
  • Withdrawal
  • Isolating
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of being disconnected/numb

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

Addiction can be extremely devastating in the life of the person struggling and those around them. If you see any of these signs or symptoms, having a loving conversation with the person or seeking help could be very beneficial.

Physical Symptoms

There are several physical symptoms you will notice. They include:8

  • Withdrawal
  • Diarrhea/constipation
  • Craving the substance
  • Seizures or trembling
  • Excessive sweating
  • Violent behavior
  • Sudden appetite changes
  • Disease
  • Bodily damage
  • Insomnia
  • Looking more disheveled or tired

Behavioral Symptoms

People might also have several behavioral signs that they might be struggling with substance use disorder. They are:8

  • Giving up things that they previously enjoyed
  • Sacrificing relationships and activities
  • Obsession with having the substance
  • Isolation
  • Secrecy
  • Denial of the issue
  • Excessive misuse or consumption
  • Stashing away the substance
  • Financial troubles
  • Legal troubles
  • Continued use after health issues
  • Obsession
  • Unnecessary risk-taking

Treating Trauma and Addiction

Trauma can have long-term adverse effects on a person if it is not treated and dealt with. The same goes for addiction. Therefore, if you have struggled with trauma or addiction, you must seek help either from a therapist, rehabilitation center, or medical professional.

Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis treatment is a type of recovery that addresses not just that substance use disorder, but also the mental health disorder or traumatic experiences. The focus of dual diagnosis treatment is to recognize that it is a complex disorder, and it is essential to address both things for long-term recovery with minimal adverse health effects.9


Therapy is one of the essentials when it comes to dealing with trauma and addiction. Normally, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) will be used to help the patient learn new coping methods and ways of dealing with stress. This therapy will also be a safe place for the patient to unpack the trauma that took place. CBT normally goes alongside recovery programs and groups.


Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, better known as EMDR, “is a psychotherapy treatment that was…designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.10 When a patient goes through EMDR, they will revisit traumatic experiences in short periods while they focus on an external object or stimulus. This therapy could involve music, hand-tapping, or multiple other things.

The goal of this kind of therapy is to help make new associations and connections that will result in a fuller development of the memory and learning experience while also eliminating emotional distress.10


Detox is the process where someone eliminates a substance from the body. Detox should be done under medical supervision since certain withdrawal effects can be extremely damaging and potentially fatal, such as theatres or increased heart rate.

For some substances, doctors might slowly taper the dosage over a period to manage these effects. If you are someone you love is struggling with addiction, they should reach out to a rehabilitation facility so they can go through detox in a safe environment and under professional supervision.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment centers are places where patients live for a time while they go through the recovery process. For trauma and addiction, this treatment could focus on helping withdrawal symptoms until the patient has made substantial progress with their trauma.

If you or a loved one are struggling with trauma or addiction, they should reach out to a professional for help. Trauma and addiction can be tough topics, but by seeking treatment and going through the healing process, people can find more peace, sobriety, and new coping strategies.




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