Understanding Trauma and Its Roots in Addiction

blurred image of traumatized teenage girl inside a room

Mental health professionals and addiction specialists have long studied the connection between trauma and addiction.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found a profound link between those who have experienced trauma and those addicted to substances or other addictive behaviors such as gambling or sex addiction.

Statistics on trauma and addiction

The statistics on substance abuse and trauma may come as a shock to many. 

Studies found that 97% of homeless women with mental health conditions had been subjected to severe sexual or physical abuse. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects approximately one-third of trauma survivors. 

Moreover, addiction and trauma studies found that 75% of men and women in drug rehabilitation programs have a history of trauma or abuse.

What is trauma?

addiction intervention hand over shoulder

Various definitions of trauma exist. 

However, perhaps the simplest way to describe trauma is that it is triggered by a “deeply disturbing or distressing event or experience”.

Broadly, trauma results from profoundly stressful events that shatter a person’s sense of safety and security. 

Effects of trauma

Trauma may cause you to feel alone and helpless, and you may even perceive the world as threatening or dangerous. 

The effects of trauma can cause many physical and emotional complications and leave you struggling with anxiety, upsetting emotions and disturbing memories that won’t go away.

Traumatic experiences

Various events and situations can trigger trauma in a person. 

Whether you experience one big event or a series of smaller events, we all respond uniquely to stress and are affected differently.

Some of us are more susceptible to trauma than others, and how we respond to a traumatic event or experience will likely depend on our past experiences and personality.

Childhood trauma

Many individuals experience traumatic events early on in life and often suppress these problematic memories, which often manifest in adulthood.

Child abuse and adverse life experiences can negatively affect a person throughout their entire life, especially if an individual’s symptoms remain unaddressed.

Such individuals may experience mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or substance misuse without knowing the root cause of their symptoms.

Traumatic events

The type of events that can induce trauma include:

  • The sudden death of a loved one
  • Being diagnosed with a terminal or severe illness
  • Physical injury 
  • Domestic abuse or intimate partner violence
  • Being a war veteran or working in the military
  • A humiliating experience that causes profound stress 
  • Going through a breakup 

Those who have experienced trauma may react to things in a way that seems disproportionate to what is happening around them. 

For instance, a person may become agitated or anxious in situations that do not pose a threat.

Trauma response

Trauma is a physical and mental response to specific scenarios that appear normal to others. 

However, these situations are deemed dangerous or life-threatening to the traumatized brain.

When a person’s trauma response is activated, they may experience various symptoms that manifest psychologically and physiologically. 

For example, an individual may engage in the freeze response, experience a panic attack or behave irrationally.

The traumatized brain

The brain doesn’t know the difference between events that happened in the past and what is happening in the present. 

Trauma is imprinted within an individual’s body and psyche and results from emotional anguish.

Traumatic memories can become trapped in the brain and central nervous system, where the person experiences symptoms as if the traumatic event were happening again.

The connection between addiction and trauma

Alcohol addicted man portrait alone with spirit bottle

Researcher and writer Mara Tyler describes addiction as “a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory. 

It’s about how your body craves a substance or behavior, especially if it causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of ‘reward’ and lack of concern over consequences” (Mara Tyler, Healthline, What Is Addiction? May 24, 2018).

According to the research, some of the most common addictions include:

  • Tobacco 
  • Opioids (narcotics) or pain relievers
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Alcohol
  • Coffee or caffeine
  • Gambling
  • Anger (as a coping mechanism)
  • Food 
  • Sex

How addiction develops

Addiction can develop in various ways; however, for many people, it starts as a subtle cry for help, a need for comfort and connection. 

For others, alcohol and drugs are used to numb emotional wounds.

Substances can provide a temporary band-aid, a way to cover up psychological scars – but whatever your substance of choice, the numbing effects are temporary. 

Once the “high” wears off, the pain returns.

Numbing the pain

Suppose we were to look at addiction as a symptom of a much deeper problem, i.e., emotional trauma or other deep-rooted condition; such acknowledgement may reduce the stigma and change how addiction is conceptualized in society. 

Conceptualizing addiction as a symptom of something rather than the problem itself might be the game-changer in how addiction is viewed culturally and within broader communities.

Understanding addiction

addiction intervention how is it done

Acknowledging that addiction is a disease of the mind is the first step to understanding substance abuse and other addictive disorders.

In addition, acknowledging that substance abuse or other addictions are a band-aid for a more profound condition of the mind and body and perhaps the entire family system is also beneficial.

Addiction experts are confident that addiction stems from trauma and many drug rehabilitation centers offer dual-diagnostic treatment to patients to address the addictive symptoms and root cause of addiction.

Trauma-informed approach

Nowadays, most addiction and mental health programs cultivate a trauma-informed approach to treatment.

However, addiction and psychological wounding have not always been tied together.

People with trauma histories were treated for their symptoms, but the origins of addiction remained neglected or overlooked for years.

Fortunately, modern research and technology have allowed for more profound exploration into the effects of trauma, and treatment programs continue to be inclusive of the link between substance misuse, process addictions and adverse life experiences. 

Mental health and addiction

Decades ago, war veterans were returning from war-torn countries and immediately re-engaging with ordinary life, untreated but profoundly traumatized.

For example, a car exhaust suddenly back-firing on the street or other loud sounds would cause a war veteran to spiral into panic.

Other people experienced intense rage, fear or confusion and felt unsafe in situations that did not pose any threat or danger.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

We now know this to be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition historically associated with war veterans returning from the military.

However, modern research has found that trauma can be triggered in various other situations, including childhood trauma, neglect or abuse, domestic violence, physical injury, divorce, the death of a loved one, and various other adverse life events.

Before medical advancement, war veterans would numb themselves with substances, continuously oscillating between rage, anger and numbness, leaving their families confused and in the dark about what was happening.

Trauma treatment

therapy hold hands

Fast forward to today, and things have moved in a much more positive direction where trauma survivors receive comprehensive trauma treatment. 

Additionally, many mental health professionals are trauma-informed and trained to understand the mechanics of trauma and how it affects the body and psyche and the coping mechanisms that people often use to cope.

Compassion and acceptance

Today, many addiction treatment programs cultivate acceptance and compassion. 

All this can involve accepting that while our traumatic experiences do not give us a pass to engage in destructive behaviors or habits, with acceptance and self-compassion, we can foster self-forgiveness and an understanding that we did the best we could given the circumstances. 

Through comprehensive treatment programs and a supportive family system, those in recovery from addiction can show up to the world as their authentic selves, with a pearl of more profound wisdom and hope that there is always a brighter future ahead.

Contact Tikvah Lake Recovery

If you want more information about this article or are concerned about your mental health, the Tikvah Lake Recovery team can help.

We specialize in treating various addictions and co-occurring disorders, including anxiety, depression, and substance use.

Contact our friendly team today to find out more.

Additional resources

  1. The Important Relation Between Trauma and Addiction: Hired Power, March 11, 2021
  2. What Is Addiction?: Healthline, Mara Tyler, May 24, 2018

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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