How Does Trauma Relate to Addiction?

Unaddressed trauma from the past is one of the biggest contributors to addiction. But how? Psychological trauma often happens to those who have significant damage to their psyche when a person has experienced a stressful event or situation. Trauma causes problems when the person needs to face the stress that is beyond their ability to cope, but haven’t worked through those emotions yet. In this article, we will discuss why and how trauma causes addiction. 

Trauma Defined

When a person fears his or her safety and has experienced intense pain upon witnessing a violent or tragic act, this is completely normal. However, if these feelings persist and cause disruptions to a person’s life, this is a deeper issue. This lasting damage to a person’s mind as a result of the tragic experience is what is referred to as trauma. Generally, the resiliency of a person may vary, so the reactions to a traumatic event also vary. 

Trauma can also be ongoing or repeated. The most common examples of this is child abuse and military combat. Car accidents, street violence, sexual abuse, repeated bullying, domestic violence, natural disasters, dysfunctional home set up and life-threatening conditions are also considered to be forms of trauma. 

How People Respond

Individuals respond to trauma in various ways. While sometimes there are no visible signs that a person is traumatized. However, some people may have seriously debilitating emotional reactions. A normal reaction to trauma is shock and denial, which the brain does to protect oneself from the severity of the traumatic event. A person could feel detached, numbed and may not even feel the immensity of it right away. However, once a person moves past the initial shock, their responses to traumatic events may include the following:

  • Sudden changes in moods
  • Easily irritated
  • Anger and denial
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of nervousness
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Finds it difficult to focus or concentrate
  • Changes in appetite
  • Insomnia or altered sleeping
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Intense fear that the traumatic event will occur
  • Feelings of nausea and headaches
  • Worsening of an existing medical condition

Victims of trauma can turn to substance abuse if they feel they are powerless to handle the situation any other way. With this kind of trauma, individuals must seek out strong social support as well as ongoing therapy, as this condition can last for years — even with therapy. 

Trauma and Addiction Connection

Many researchers have been studying the relationship between trauma and addiction over the past few years. This is so they can understand why many drug and alcohol addicts have a history of such traumatic experiences. Data gathered from 17,000 patients in a research study shows that a child with more than four traumatic events in their life is more likely to become an alcoholic as an adult. It was also shown that 60% of these children became obese and were 46 times more likely to become an injection-drug addict as compared to the general population. 

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 75% of men and women who have checked in for treatment have a history of abuse and trauma. On the other hand, 97% of homeless women with mental illness had reported experiencing sexual and physical abuse at home, by their partners or even in the streets. About 34% of people treated for substance abuse have PTSD while 1/3 of people who have been exposed to trauma had developed PTSD. It is also found out that men are more prone to developing PTSD compared to women.

For these reasons, the connection of addiction and trauma are considered to be complex. This means that some people struggling to cope with the effects of trauma may also turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication. For people suffering from PTSD for example, the use of drugs to sedate the underlying symptoms of their condition is one of the ways for them to manage it. The only problem is that they develop an addiction to substances which causes more pain to the person who is already suffering from such trauma.

Another possible reason where addiction and trauma are connected is when the substance abuser puts themselves in harm’s way more often than those who don’t have a substance use disorder. This can be due to dangerous neighborhoods, bad influences, and other aspects that are associated with substance abuse that can also predispose them to trauma. This could be by accidents, crimes, violence and other forms of trauma-inciting incidents. A person’s genetics are theorized to have something to do with a person’s predisposition to developing trauma and those who have addictive tendencies, but it is still yet to be proven by research. 

Why Trauma Victims Turn to Substance Abuse

The effects of trauma can be difficult to manage for some people. Negative emotions, thoughts and the stress it comes with can be overwhelming to some. This is why addicts will seek out ways to cope. Unfortunately, a lot of the time the easiest and fastest coping mechanism is using harmful and illegal substances to numb the pain. About 90% of people in a behavioral health care facility have experienced something traumatic in their lifetime and many of these trauma can last for years. 

Individuals who put themselves in risky situations often do so under the influence of mind-altering drugs and alcohol, which then can lead to more trauma. It becomes a never-ending cycle that gets harder and harder to break as time goes on. 

There are plenty of reasons why a person might turn to substance abuse after a traumatic event. It could be because:

  • They want to dull the pain.
  • They don’t want to keep reliving the experience in their mind.
  • They want to avoid thinking about the traumatic event. 
  • They don’t want to believe they have trauma.
  • They want to show others that they can handle the situation. 


It is a challenge to find quality treatment for co-occurring substance addiction and psychological trauma. However, the most effective kind of treatment for this condition should be designed to target both the trauma and the addiction. Treatment must include psychotherapy and perhaps even medication, which can address both conditions. There are medications and types of therapy that can help treat the symptoms of trauma kinds that can treat the addiction as well. Seeking a good treatment facility with this kind of program should help get you set on the right track. 

If you or someone you know suffer from trauma and addiction, it is crucial to find an experienced and reliable treatment facility that can help you with this. There is still hope for those who are suffering from these conditions. Healing will not happen overnight, as recovery is a process that never truly ends. But working through the right treatment program can do wonders in helping you regain control and happiness in your life. You just have to work with the best so you can live your life to the fullest again, don’t lose hope.