Learn / Does Trauma Cause Addiction?

Does Trauma Cause Addiction?

Grace Ogren
 October 1st, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Addiction rarely begins on its own. Something often triggers the need to use substances to self-medicate, cope, or forget painful events, even just briefly.

Uncovering and addressing the traumas behind your addiction is an important part of the recovery journey. And with rehab centers dedicated to treating trauma, you can work through this with the support and guidance of peers and professionals.

How Trauma Sets the Stage for Later Challenges

You may have experienced developmental trauma while growing up, or a traumatic event in the more recent past. In either case, addiction often arises as a way to cope with its effects—whether we realize it or not.

Childhood Trauma

Early traumas tend to show up in our present lives in a number of ways. Behavioral health professionals call these “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, and they’re closely tied to all kinds of issues we may grapple with as adults. ACEs can involve abuse, neglect, and other forms of family dysfunction.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “ACEs are strongly related to development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems,1 including substance abuse, throughout the lifespan.” That’s because exposure to high stress at a young age affects brain development. “Disruption in early development of the nervous system may impede a child’s ability to cope with negative or disruptive emotions,” says SAMHSA. “Over time, and often during adolescence, the child adopts coping mechanisms, such as substance use.”

Recognizing this in yourself for the first time can be overwhelming. But ACEs are extremely common. In a massive, long-term study by the CDC, “28% of…participants reported physical abuse and 21% reported sexual abuse,”1 and many had parents who divorced or struggled with mental illness or addiction.

Trauma isn’t okay, but it is common, even among those who appear to have had a “perfect” childhood.

Adult PTSD

Sometimes, symptoms of this develop into an ongoing condition: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It’s surprisingly common for adults to experience symptoms from childhood trauma they don’t remember.2 It’s also possible for an experience as an adult to trigger a PTSD episode based on framework laid by traumatic experiences as a child.

Even though we may not be consciously aware of their origins, we might still see the effects of these traumas later in life. And they dramatically increase our likelihood of developing addiction and other mental health issues. Studies show that adult survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to engage in high-risk and self-harming behaviors,3 including substance abuse.

Using Substances to Manage Trauma Symptoms

The effects of trauma can be extremely hard to live with, no matter how old you are. Thoughts and feelings associated with trauma are invasive, repetitive, and can be terrifying and exhausting. Veteran mental advocate expert Dr. Harry McCleary explains, “Avoidance is a core symptom of PTSD.4 The last thing that anyone that has experienced a trauma wants to do is experience something similar.” One of the most common ways to do this is to use substances.

Substances are easily available, and the relief they provide is immediate.

The problem with this is that it works until it doesn’t. As soon as the effects wear off, the trauma comes back—and often even more so, due to a rebound effect.5 Regularly using substances to cope can quickly lead to dependence and addiction, which only creates more problems. And as long as you’re using substances to avoid your feelings, you’re not developing the coping skills necessary to manage them.

Addiction can also put you in high-risk situations—whether it’s getting more drugs in an unsafe way, or making uninhibited decisions—that lead to further traumas. As McCleary says, “Now you have multiple problems: a substance issue, and a PTSD issue, and one is feeding on another.”

The good news is that both addiction and trauma are highly responsive to treatment.

Why Treatment Should be Trauma-Informed

Trauma-informed care is “an approach in the human service field6 that assumes that an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma.” In practice, this can look like the following:

  • creating a trauma-informed culture
  • training all staff on trauma
  • screening all incoming patients for trauma
  • evaluating practices to make sure they’re not potentially retraumatizing

Trauma-informed therapists work with a knowledge of trauma and the cultural and socioeconomic factors that contribute to it.7 These treatment settings reduce the chance that patients will feel triggered, unsafe, or uncomfortable as they work through their trauma.

Learn more about this approach in our article on finding a trauma-informed rehab.

Learning to Manage Triggers

In rehab, you may spend some time learning how to identify and manage triggers. Substance abuse has a strong connection to PTSD symptoms,8 which makes managing them important. With the support of trained professionals, you can learn new ways of responding to stress within the safe environment that residential care provides.

Addressing Co-Occurring Disorders

Trauma and addiction very often go hand in hand. If you have PTSD or another diagnosis along with addiction, it’s a good idea to find a program that specifically treats co-occurring disorders. As Dr. McCleary says, “Substance use and PTSD are such close friends that we’ve developed multiple treatments to treat both at the same time. There are treatment facilities that treat both at the same time. Because that’s how prevalent this is.”

Plenty of qualified professionals specialize in treating people in exactly your position.

All you have to do is reach out to them to take the first step towards healing.

Finding Rehab for Trauma and Addiction

Trauma isn’t fair, but it is a fundamental part of the human experience. And if you’re struggling with its effects, you’re certainly not the only one.

You are normal.

There’s nothing wrong with you.

And you have endless opportunities to heal.

Looking into rehabs that specialize in treating trauma can be a great place to start that healing journey. Visit our directory to learn more about your options and reach out to treatment centers directly.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. The Role of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Substance Abuse and Related Behavioral Health Problems. (n.d.). SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies. https://www.cambridgema.gov/CDD/Projects/Planning/~/media/328D3B716A24449D8504357BD3865949.ashx [] []
  2. PTSD can develop even without memory of the trauma, psychologists report. (n.d.). UCLA. Retrieved from https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ptsd-can-develop-even-without-memory-of-the-trauma-psychologists-report []
  3. Garrido, E. F., Weiler, L. M., & Taussig, H. N. (2018). Adverse childhood experiences and health-risk behaviors in vulnerable early adolescents. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 38(5), 661–680. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431616687671 []
  4. 4. Drugs, alcohol and trauma: Why people use substances to cope with PTSD? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjD10d5LgV0 []
  5. Tomlinson, L. K., Tate, R. K., Anderson, G. K., & McCarthy, M. D. (2006). An examination of self-medication and rebound effects: Psychiatric symptomatology before and after alcohol or drug relapse. Addictive Behaviors, 31(3). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2005.05.028 []
  6. What is trauma-informed care? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://socialwork.buffalo.edu/social-research/institutes-centers/institute-on-trauma-and-trauma-informed-care/what-is-trauma-informed-care.html []
  7. Koetting, C. (2016). Trauma-Informed Care Helping Patients with a Painful Past. Journal of Christian Nursing, 33(4), 206–213. https://doi.org/10.1097 []
  8. Khoury, L., Tang, Y. L., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. F., & Ressler, K. J. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population. Depression and Anxiety, 27(12), 1077–1086. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20751 []

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