Why trauma-informed care is crucial in addiction recovery

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Addiction is not an isolated problem.

Any form of substance misuse whether that be drugs or alcohol is merely a set of coping skills that a user adopts to conceal more profound, underlying issues – usually trauma of some kind.

Trauma is different for everyone, explains Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC); there are no absolutes as people perceive trauma in different ways. 

An event that disturbs one person mightn’t do anything to another, such as a robbery at the local grocery store. 

Virtually, the impact of trauma affects us all differently.

Trauma triggers

Equally, just as people experience trauma differently, the origins of any given traumatic experience are diversified too – these include:

  • Suffering from a childhood illness
  • Witnessing an upsetting incident or disturbing event or a series of alarming events
  • Having a negative experience with your primary caregivers or having a lack of support throughout childhood
  • Seeing a family member becoming violent towards another family member (such as a mother or father being violent towards one another)
  • Having a history of trauma such as being the victim of child abuse

What are the principles of trauma-informed care?

In addiction treatment, – addiction treatment specialists must take a trauma-informed approach to care.  

If unresolved trauma remains untreated, someone with a substance use disorder is at a significantly higher risk of relapsing in the future.

A trauma-informed approach involves:

  • Recognizing and acknowledging how trauma affects people in different ways, and how trauma impacts those involved with the program, system, organization and workforce.
  • Realizing the nature of trauma and its prevalence.
  • Resisting re-traumatization and doing everything possible to prevent that from happening.
  • Responding accordingly by putting everything learned into practice.

The core principles of trauma-informed care

Several principles allow people to address any underlying trauma they might have. An approach that allows them the opportunity to understand themselves and their addictive behaviour.

Trauma-informed care systems

Trauma-informed care is a behavioural health service that incorporates a range of systems. Hoda’s explained it this way:

”We need to presume the clients we serve have a history of traumatic stress and exercise ‘universal cautions’ by creating systems of care that are trauma-informed” (Hoda’s, 2005).

The five principles of a trauma-informed care system approach involve:

  • Safety: Maintaining emotional, mental and physical security at all times
  • Choice: Creating the space for people (staff) to make choices for themselves, this is particularly useful for those who have had a lack of control over their lives or had their options and choices taken away, this also leads to empowerment for the trauma survivor
  • Trustworthiness: Asserting and maintaining boundaries – making boundaries and duties clear
  • Empowerment: Ensuring consumer empowerment and key-skill building
  • Collaboration: Maintaining and maximizing collaboration where possible

What percentage of addicts have trauma?

Researchers have found a profound correlation between substance abuse addiction and trauma – this research is further compounded by those who also have PTSD

When people experience symptoms of trauma such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), they turn to drugs or alcohol to help numb out the pain. 

Since substance abuse and mental health issues go hand in hand, the person experiencing addiction must immediately seek help and support.


Statistics illustrating the growing number of addiction and trauma cases in both men and women, are shown below:

  • Up to 75 percent of people who have experienced severe traumas have admitted to abusing alcohol.
  • Drug abuse affects 35 percent of people living with male PTSD and 27 per cent of women.
  • Alcohol abuse affects 52 percent of people with male PTSD and 28 percent of women.

What are the three concepts of trauma-informed practice?

There are three key concepts identified in trauma-informed care, all of which involve a complex and thorough inspection.

Mental health care facilities treating trauma invariably understand the complexities that traumatic events can bring to the body and mind.

Trauma survivors, it appears, express trauma differently; some patients may heal quite well, while others show an entirely different pattern of recovery, proving that every person responds to treatment uniquely.

Critical concepts in trauma-informed care

Concept 1: Adverse Childhood Experiences

The first concept of a trauma-informed care approach begins with Adverse Childhood Experiences known as ACEs.

ACEs are events that occur in the home or out in the community and can impact how children’s brains develop, affecting their emotions and physical wellbeing.

It’s a fact that adults who experienced traumatic events as children are at a significantly higher risk of suffering addiction and mental health problems than those who didn’t.

A positive shift in thinking

It’s important to remember that people who score high in ACEs can and do lead happy and fulfilling lives. It’s also useful to remind ourselves that people without ACEs take up addictions and substance use disorders all the time.

According to research, the key to addressing ACE’s from a trauma-informed perspective is to address the inequities that people have endured because of their earlier journey in life.

These inequities include:

  • Unequal access to safety
  • Higher levels of poverty
  • A lack of quality medical care, childcare and the opportunity to lead rewarding and fulfilling lives

Research suggests that addressing inequities is just as crucial in recovery as advocating for proper substance misuse treatment.

Concept 2: A healing centred approach

A healing centred approach enables recovery specialists to ask their patients not ‘‘what happened to you’‘ but rather ” what is right with you”.

This approach moves beyond the perspective of other trauma-informed care procedures that ask: ”what happened to you” instead of ‘‘what’s wrong with you”.

Language matters

According to the healing centred approach, using the right language is crucial as it gives patients agency over their lives, allowing them to become trauma survivors and not victims.

Concept 3: Not everyone with trauma is symptomatic in the long-term

Interestingly, not everyone with a history of trauma is symptomatic long-term; some people heal organically.

Equally, those who are symptomatic appear to be perfectly fine to other people.

Of course, there is a spectrum which highlights the many ways that trauma symptoms get expressed negatively; these include:

  • Irritability
  • A person appearing spaced out, anxious or withdrawn
  • Someone appearing defensive and guarded
  • Experiencing deep distrust toward others
  • A tendency to overreact

What helps people heal naturally?

Recovery takes many forms. However, according to trauma experts, healing requires a blended approach, which involves:

  • Positive social support and help
  • Having good access to recovery resources and best practices
  • A positive response (this consists of being seen, protected and believed)
  • Positive action throughout a traumatic event – rather than staying frozen or trapped
  • Faith and cultural support groups and resources

Why might trauma victims be more susceptible to problems with addiction?

Substance abuse is a coping mechanism, not the core problem. Why a person abuses drugs or alcohol is as complex and unique as the person.

However, the main reason (s) why people turn to alcohol or drugs is universal:

  • To numb out the pain of past traumatic experiences
  • To feel calm and confident in social situations
  • To feel empowered

All these emotional states rarely get experienced when a person is sober -, in the lens of sobriety; people struggle to cope.

In this scenario, addiction offers people the coping skills required to get through a social event, traumatic experience, and, for some, only getting through the day.

Psychological trauma and addiction don’t have a rule of exemption, regardless of age, race, culture and background, the devastating impact trauma brings to a person’s life is limitless.

Up to 25 per cent of children and adolescents have experienced trauma to some degree – this alone increases their drug addiction capacity.


Research suggests a blended approach to a dual diagnosis of co-occurring psychological trauma and drug addiction. 

This method of treatment involves medication and psychotherapy – the one-two punch that treats both conditions simultaneously.

Medication helps alleviate symptoms of depression, panic attacks, and cases where a person is addicted to drugs, certain medications to treat drug addiction.

For addiction treatment to be effective, treatment plans must be delivered frequently, especially when treating a dual diagnosis condition.

Other treatment programs that are effective in treating addiction, depression and anxiety include:

Getting in touch

At Tikvah Lake Recovery, we offer the best in class support and recovery programs designed to treat trauma and addiction.

The positive feedback and comments that we get from our clients allow us to continue providing optimum care and support to those that need it.

Addiction recovery is a rocky road.

However, with the help of our trained team of specialists, we can help you get to the core of your addiction, helping you to release the trauma of your past – allowing you to live a life free from the clutches of addiction.

Contact us today to find out how we can help.

About Adam Nesenoff

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

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