The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

Trauma, or harmful experiences that leave a lingering impact on people’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being, has a complicated relationship with substance abuse. A strong trauma therapy program for addiction recovery will treat the whole individual—addressing not only their substance use but its causes and effects.

Symptoms and Consequences of Trauma

Many different events can cause trauma, such as:

  • Childhood neglect
  • Harassment
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Physical, emotional, or verbal abuse
  • War and combat
  • Serious illness
  • Natural disasters
  • Accidents

Going far beyond a single event or circumstance, trauma can increase your level of day-to-day stress. Your brain may become accustomed to releasing high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. You may avoid anything that reminds you of your trauma or constantly relive the traumatic event in your mind.

Even if a situation isn’t dangerous, these hormones may lead you to act as if it’s dangerous with a “fight-or-flight” response. In severe cases, you may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Specific symptoms a trauma survivor may experience include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Excessive emotional displays and mood swings
  • Trouble in social and professional situations
  • Lack of confidence
  • Trouble in intimate relationships

Why Trauma Can Lead to Addiction

One strong connection between trauma and addiction is that trauma can change how your brain works.

Particularly if you experience trauma in childhood, your brain may permanently rewire to release more stress hormones and become more vulnerable in certain situations, affecting your perception and behavior. When you experience an event that triggers you or reminds you of past trauma, you may feel increasingly agitated, sensitive, or depressed.

These overwhelming emotions lead many trauma survivors to seek temporary relief through drugs and alcohol. In fact, it’s estimated that up to two-thirds of people with substance use disorders survived traumatic events in their childhood. They may also have observed adults and caregivers “self-medicate” with substances.

Addictive substances can numb strong feelings and relieve symptoms of anxiety and fear, but only for a short time. You may feel compelled to use more and more of a substance to relax. This pattern can lead to long-term consequences like:

  • Trouble trusting others
  • Inability to deal with emotions in healthy ways
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression or self-harm

Both trauma and addiction can eventually rewire the brain. If someone develops a dependence on or addiction to alcohol or drugs, the substances can alter their body and brain functioning, making them less able to handle stressful events in daily life.

A substance use disorder can become its own “secondary trauma.” People may engage in risky behavior or experience health crises because of their substance use, resulting in another traumatic event.

How Does Trauma-Informed Treatment for Addiction Work?

People with trauma and addiction may not even realize how their substance use is a response to trauma. With trauma-informed treatment for addiction, clients make the connection between past events and present behavior. Before they can heal from substance use, they need to understand its underlying cause.

Trauma-informed treatment for addiction provides a safe, collaborative environment to examine the many ways trauma affects people. In individual and group therapy, clients can discuss the deeper effects of their trauma and begin to heal. Peer support groups can counteract the isolation that trauma survivors often feel, as group members learn from one another and form strong bonds.

Dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder treatment—medical treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions—is a pillar of trauma-informed programs. For some clients, this treatment includes medication targeted to their symptoms.

Groups in trauma-informed treatment often use evidence-based therapy techniques, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). With DBT, clients practice healthy, constructive ways to regulate strong emotions without resorting to substances. Other therapy methods that can be effective for trauma and addiction include:

  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Exposure and desensitization therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Distress tolerance skills like distraction and relaxation
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Trauma Therapy at Greater Boston Addiction Centers

Integrated care for trauma and substance abuse is a cornerstone of our treatment. The medical professionals at Greater Boston Addiction Center treat the whole individual by looking beyond substance use disorders to the person’s trauma history. Treatment plans are customized to the client’s needs and may include PTSD-specific treatment, support groups for mental health diagnoses, and family counseling.

Trauma and addiction don’t have to define your future. If you think you or a loved one would benefit from trauma-informed therapy, contact us at 877.920.6583 to start the process of recovery.

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