Exploring the Complex Relationship Between Addiction and Trauma

Addiction rarely happens in a vacuum. Often, it culminates as a result of many different environmental, social, and genetic factors. In the case of environmental factors, being exposed to trauma at a young age can have a significant impact on someone’s likelihood to abuse drugs or alcohol. Here, we take a closer look at the complex relationship between addiction and trauma.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is any kind of event or circumstance that leaves a lasting negative impact on your mental, social, and emotional well-being. The majority of traumatic incidents tend to occur in childhood (e.g., abuse, neglect, molestation) but they can occur at any age (e.g., natural disasters or the death of a loved one). It’s key to remember that trauma is a deeply personal experience – no two people will respond the same way to a traumatic incident.

In some cases, trauma can lead to addiction; in fact, most experts believe that the majority of addiction cases boil down to past traumas or underlying mental health conditions. But what does this look like? And why do trauma and addiction so often go hand-in-hand?

Types of Trauma

There are many different types of trauma and everyone’s individual experience with trauma will be unique. Despite this, there are a few common themes when it comes to trauma. This includes:

  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Rape
  • Parental neglect
  • Child abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Accidents (ie., car crashes, fires, and sudden injuries)
  • Terminal illness
  • Natural disasters
  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Emotional and verbal abuse

It’s important to remember that this isn’t an exhaustive list – trauma is personal and can include any experience or situation that made you feel like you were in danger.

Signs of Trauma

Those who have experienced trauma will exhibit a wide range of symptoms sometimes mistaken for anxiety or depression. Though everyone’s experience with trauma will be different, there are a few common signs to look out for. These include:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Erratic behavior
  • Excessive displays of emotion
  • Lack of confidence
  • Eating disorders (i.e., anorexia or bulimia)
  • Nightmares of the traumatic event
  • Constantly reliving the traumatic event in your head

Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between addiction and trauma.

Trauma-Induced Addiction Begins at a Young Age

Studies suggest that trauma-induced addiction (an addiction that occurs after exposure to a traumatic event) is more common in young people between the ages of 12 and 17.

Being exposed to any kind of traumatic event during early childhood is likely to have lasting consequences, impacting both our mental and emotional health. Left untreated, this can easily spiral into addiction and serve as a coping mechanism in times of anxiety or stress – especially if you’re suffering from flashbacks or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


For those diagnosed with PTSD, self-medication – using drugs and alcohol to numb feelings – is a common theme in the link between addiction and trauma. Many turn to these psychoactive substances to dull their emotions and take the edge off what they’re feeling. Though this might promote feelings of relaxation and happiness for a short while, this feeling doesn’t last long. The endorphins released by drugs and alcohol eventually fade and are replaced with ‘come-downs’ and feelings of sadness and anxiety. Prolonged substance and alcohol abuse can increase tolerance, causing many to amp up their dosage to achieve the same desired effect. This is often the very first stage in the lead-up to trauma-induced addiction.

Addiction Can Also Lead To Trauma

Though most cases of addiction stem from trauma, it’s also possible to develop secondary trauma from having an addiction. This is because sustained drug and/or alcohol intake has a significant impact on the way the brain functions, affecting our ability to handle stress and other emotions properly. This can increase the likelihood of developing secondary trauma, especially if you’re unable to work through difficult emotions like stress and anxiety, or difficult situations like the death of a loved one.

Trauma-Induced Addiction Should Be Treated With Dual Diagnosis

Trauma-induced addiction is often referred to as a comorbid disorder, i.e., two or more disorders occurring alongside each other. This is because both trauma and addiction are classified as ‘disorders’. This is why it’s so important to take a dual diagnosis approach when it comes to treating trauma-induced addiction, something which the majority of rehab clinics will be able to offer. Though you can treat addiction physically through medical detox, you also need to treat the root cause of your addiction: in this case, that’s trauma. If this isn’t addressed or acknowledged, you run the risk of slipping back into the cycle of addiction and relapsing, even if you’ve been sober for months at a time.

Dual diagnosis treatment will combine medical treatment such as detox with psychological treatment – such as therapy and eye-movement desensitization therapy (EMDR) – both of which are combined to treat a comorbid disorder head-on.

The Majority of Addicted Individuals Don’t See the Need for Treatment

Not everyone will know the ‘why’ or stressors behind their addiction, which in turn can prompt people to turn down treatment or believe that they don’t actually need it. This will push them to continue down the destructive path of addiction, using drugs and/or alcohol to numb their feelings and combat whatever stressor is leading them to abuse substances.

Women Are More Likely To Suffer From Trauma-induced Addiction Than Men

Though there’s no ‘set rule’ to this, studies suggest that women are more likely to suffer from trauma-induced addiction than men. In fact, research carried out by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 80% of women in addiction treatment suffered from past trauma.

Treatment for Trauma-Induced Addiction

Trauma-induced addiction treatment will usually consist of a combination of medical and psychological interventions. Alongside medical detox, you’ll also be offered therapy (i.e., cognitive-behavioral therapy, EMDR therapy, dialectical-behavior therapy), all of which are designed to complement the healing process. Depending on which rehab clinic you attend, you’ll also have the option of receiving inpatient or outpatient treatment. While inpatient treatment is better suited to those who don’t have much work or familial responsibilities, it can be costly. Outpatient treatment is just as effective as inpatient treatment and doesn’t require you to sleep overnight or be present for an entire week. Talk to a doctor if you’re unsure about your options. Seeking help is the first step to recovery.

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