Is There A Link Between Trauma and Addiction?

Is There A Link Between Trauma and Addiction?

Traumatic events shape the people we become. Whether it’s a childhood experience or something you faced as an adult, these situations can change how you see the world and view yourself. Trauma can often lead to substance use disorder (SUD) as you try to cope with the symptoms caused by trauma. However, if you struggle with SUD and trauma, there is hope — you can find healing and sobriety. 

What Is Trauma?

Any time you fear your safety, you are experiencing trauma. Trauma can be anything that puts your physical or emotional well-being at risk of harm in response to an event, such as an accident, sexual violence, abuse, or natural disaster. However, how a person responds to these events can differ, meaning that a traumatic event does not have to be severe to cause trauma. Many people experience trauma through “small” events, such as losing a loved one, societal trauma, and even isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. No matter the event, trauma can take a significant toll on well-being. 

Immediately after a traumatic event, you may experience shock, denial, and anger. Trauma can overwhelm your ability to cope, causing feelings of helplessness and diminishing your sense of self. As time passes, you may also experience:

  • Unpredictable emotions
  • Flashbacks
  • Strained relationships
  • Headaches 
  • Nausea 


Trauma’s Link to Substance Use Disorder

Underneath addiction are mental and emotional factors that drive you to use substances. Without treating trauma, you may experience significant effects on your life. As you experience the long-term symptoms of trauma, living life day-to-day can become challenging. When the emotional pain becomes too much, you may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. 

While the relief from trauma through substance abuse may work temporarily, it is not a long-term solution. The effects of substance abuse on the brain and body can leave you feeling worse than before. Trauma and addiction can become a vicious cycle; you use substances to cope, your emotions become more intense, and you must use more drugs or alcohol to cope. As a result, you may develop SUD. 

The Effects of Trauma and Substance Use Disorder

When trauma and addiction co-exist, your lifestyle may begin to deteriorate. You may start experiencing worsening anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Daily tasks such as work and maintaining relationships may become exceptionally challenging. Addiction also creates changes in the brain, which may cause you to act out in ways you normally wouldn’t. As a result, you run the risk of further traumatizing yourself. 

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, those who have undergone trauma are more likely to abuse substances than others. In fact:

  • One-quarter to three-quarters of people who have survived abusive or violent traumatic experiences report problematic alcohol use
  • One-tenth to one-third of people who survive accidents, illness, or disaster-related trauma report problematic alcohol use, especially if they have persistent health problems or pain related to the traumatic experience

Looking at COVID-19 Trauma and Substance Use

As more people are being vaccinated against COVID-19 and society begins to open again, many people are experiencing trauma related to the pandemic. Enduring emotional distress and fear, such as that created by COVID-19, can cause trauma in children and adults. Trauma can carry long-term effects if left untreated, meaning the impact of the pandemic remains for many as the world is slowly turning back to some semblance of normalcy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of June 2020, 13% of Americans reported starting or increasing their substance use to cope with the stress caused by the pandemic. As a result, overdoses have spiked as well. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), nearly 92,000 drug overdoses occurred in the United States from November 2019 to October 2020. This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. 

Treating Trauma and Substance Use Disorder

No matter the event, working to heal trauma and recover from SUD is the most effective way of maintaining long-term recovery. When looking for treatment, it’s essential to inquire whether a facility offers trauma-informed care or trauma-based therapies. As you heal the emotional and psychological pain of trauma, you may feel less inclined to turn to substances for relief. Simultaneously working towards recovery from SUD will help you identify triggers and learn to stay sober even during the most challenging times.

Through our various therapies, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), we can help you create an individualized framework for lasting recovery while also empowering you to stop living a life controlled by fear.