Understanding the Link Between Trauma and Addiction

Traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence, or other traumatic events, can significantly impact an individual’s mental health and well-being. Trauma can also lead to several long-term health effects when left untreated, including substance use disorder and addiction

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), trauma and substance use disorders frequently co-occur. In fact, studies have shown that individuals with a history of trauma are up to four times more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those without a trauma history. Moreover, individuals with a substance use disorder are more likely to have a history of trauma than those without a substance use disorder. These statistics highlight the urgent need to understand the link between trauma and addiction and to provide trauma-informed care to individuals struggling with substance use disorders.

Childhood trauma, in particular, can have a significant impact on the developing brain and increase the risk of addiction in adulthood.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event that has a long-lasting impact on a person’s mental and emotional health. 

Traumatic experiences can range from witnessing a car accident to experiencing sexual abuse, and the resulting impact can vary from person to person. 

Trauma can have both immediate and long-term effects, and if left untreated, it can significantly impact an individual’s well-being.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Traumatic experiences can have long-lasting effects on the adult brain. Childhood trauma, in particular, can alter brain development and function, leading to long-term mental health issues in adulthood. When a person experiences trauma, the amygdala (a small almond-shaped structure in the brain) is activated, leading to a fight-or-flight response. Over time, repeated traumatic experiences can lead to the overstimulation of the amygdala, leading to a constant state of hypervigilance, anxiety, and fear. This chronic activation of the amygdala can lead to alterations in brain development and structure, increasing the likelihood of developing mental illness and substance use disorders.

Additionally, there are also several common ways that trauma affects the adult brain:


Trauma can cause the brain’s “fight or flight” response to trigger even in non-threatening situations, leading to a state of hyperarousal, including insomnia, irritability, and exaggerated startle response. 


Avoidance is another common response to trauma. Individuals may avoid situations or things such as an event, that remind them of the traumatic experience, which can interfere with their ability to engage in daily activities. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), symptoms of avoidance are present in 40-50% of individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Physical Health Problems

Trauma can also have physical health consequences. A study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that individuals who experience childhood trauma were more likely to develop chronic pain and digestive issues. Other physical health consequences of trauma include heart disease and autoimmune disorders. 

Negative Self-Image

Trauma can lead to negative self-talk and self-image, affecting the way individuals view themselves and their abilities. Individuals who experienced childhood trauma were more likely to develop negative self-talk and a negative self-image, which can have far-reaching effects on mental health. 

Why Trauma Often Leads to Addiction

Individuals who have experienced trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate and cope with the overwhelming emotional and physical pain caused by traumatic experiences. Substance abuse can temporarily numb the pain and provide a sense of relief. However, this self-medicating behavior can quickly spiral into addiction, leading to long-term health problems and negatively impacting the individual’s mental and physical health.

Substance use can often actually worsen the effects of trauma over an extended period of time. Substance use can interfere with brain function and increase the symptoms of trauma-related disorders.

Begin Recovery

Whether you’re seeking treatment for yourself, a loved one or as a referring physician, we are always available to answer your questions and help connect you with the resources you need.

Types of Trauma

There are several types of trauma that individuals can experience, including the following: 

  • Physical trauma: This type of trauma involves physical harm or injury, such as accidents, assaults, or natural disasters.
  • Sexual trauma: This type of trauma involves unwanted sexual contact or abuse, such as rape, molestation, or sexual harassment.
  • Emotional trauma: This type of trauma involves emotional abuse or neglect, such as verbal abuse, belittling, abandonment, or psychological abuse. 
  • Domestic violence: This type of trauma involves physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in a domestic or intimate relationship.
  • Child abuse: This type of trauma involves physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of a child by a caregiver or family member.
  • Accidents and disasters: This type of trauma involves exposure to natural or man-made disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or terrorist attacks.
  • Medical trauma: This type of trauma involves medical procedures or diagnoses that are painful, invasive, or life-threatening, such as surgery or a serious illness.
  • War and combat trauma: This type of trauma involves exposure to combat or other war-related experiences, such as being in a warzone or witnessing violence

Traumatic events can also include witnessing violence or death. It’s important to note that trauma is a highly individualized experience, and different people may respond to similar situations in different ways. For example, two people who experience the same car accident may have very different emotional responses and long-term effects on their mental health.

Regardless of the type of trauma, it’s crucial to seek professional help if you’re struggling with the effects of traumatic experiences. Trauma-informed care can help individuals with trauma-related substance use disorders overcome their addiction and achieve long-term recovery.

Signs of Trauma in Adults

The signs of trauma in adults can vary widely from person to person and the type of trauma experienced. It can also range from emotional and psychological symptoms to physical symptoms. Emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma can include depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, irritability, and anger. Physical symptoms of trauma can include headaches, digestive problems, and chronic pain.

The National Center for PTSD estimated 7-8% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, and women are more likely to experience PTSD than men. 

Some common signs of trauma in adults include:

  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Increased irritability 
  • Difficulty regulating emotions 

How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction in Adulthood

Childhood trauma, also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), is more common than many people realize and can significantly impact a child’s development. This can also increase the likelihood of developing substance use disorders in adulthood. 

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 60% of adults in the United States reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood experience such as the following:

  • physical 
  • emotional 
  • sexual abuse
  •  neglect
  • household dysfunction 

The study also found that the more ACEs a person experienced, the higher their risk of negative health outcomes such as addiction and substance abuse. Children who experience ACEs may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the overwhelming emotional pain and trauma, leading to substance use disorders later in life.

PTSD and Addiction

PTSD is a common mental health disorder that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD often experience flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts related to the traumatic event. PTSD and addiction are closely linked, and individuals with PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. Substance use can provide temporary relief from PTSD symptoms, but it can also worsen the condition over time, leading to long-term health problems.

Treating Trauma-Related Addiction and Substance Use Disorders

Effective treatment for addiction and substance use disorder caused by trauma requires a trauma-informed approach that addresses the underlying traumatic experiences which led to substance abuse. 

Trauma-informed care is a person-centered approach that considers an individual’s trauma history when providing care, ensuring that the individual feels safe, supported, and empowered during the treatment process. This approach can significantly improve treatment outcomes and help individuals in recovery achieve long-term sobriety.

Addiction treatment for individuals with trauma-related substance use disorders often involves a combination of evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). These therapies focus on helping individuals develop healthy coping strategies, managing triggers and cravings, and improving mental health outcomes.

Adolescents with trauma-related substance use disorders require specialized care to address their unique developmental needs. Adolescents with trauma histories may have different treatment needs and require support from medical professionals who are experienced in working with adolescents with co-occurring disorders.

Substance abuse treatment for individuals with trauma-related substance use disorders should also include holistic approaches, such as mindfulness-based interventions, yoga, and meditation. These approaches can help individuals develop healthy coping mechanisms, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve overall well-being.

Getting Help for Trauma-Related SUDs

It is essential to recognize the signs of trauma and seek a healthcare professional who specializes in trauma to get the most effective treatment. Our clinical team at Riverside Recovery of Tampa are expereinced in trauma and other co-occurring disorders. 

With proper treatment, individuals can recover from the effects of trauma and achieve long-term recovery from substance use disorders.

Contact our admissions team today to learn more about our residential, intensive outpatient, and outpatient programs.