Learn / Does Trauma Cause Addiction?
Addiction rarely begins on its own. Something often triggers the need to use substances to self-medicate, cope, or forget painful events, even just briefly.
Uncovering and addressing the traumas behind your addiction is an important part of the recovery journey. And with rehab centers dedicated to treating trauma, you can work through this with the support and guidance of peers and professionals.
You may have experienced developmental trauma while growing up, or a traumatic event in the more recent past. In either case, addiction often arises as a way to cope with its effects—whether we realize it or not.
Early traumas tend to show up in our present lives in a number of ways. Behavioral health professionals call these “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, and they’re closely tied to all kinds of issues we may grapple with as adults. ACEs can involve abuse, neglect, and other forms of family dysfunction.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “ACEs are strongly related to development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems,1 including substance abuse, throughout the lifespan.” That’s because exposure to high stress at a young age affects brain development. “Disruption in early development of the nervous system may impede a child’s ability to cope with negative or disruptive emotions,” says SAMHSA. “Over time, and often during adolescence, the child adopts coping mechanisms, such as substance use.”
Recognizing this in yourself for the first time can be overwhelming. But ACEs are extremely common. In a massive, long-term study by the CDC, “28% of…participants reported physical abuse and 21% reported sexual abuse,”1 and many had parents who divorced or struggled with mental illness or addiction.
Trauma isn’t okay, but it is common, even among those who appear to have had a “perfect” childhood.
Sometimes, symptoms of this develop into an ongoing condition: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It’s surprisingly common for adults to experience symptoms from childhood trauma they don’t remember.2 It’s also possible for an experience as an adult to trigger a PTSD episode based on framework laid by traumatic experiences as a child.
Even though we may not be consciously aware of their origins, we might still see the effects of these traumas later in life. And they dramatically increase our likelihood of developing addiction and other mental health issues. Studies show that adult survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to engage in high-risk and self-harming behaviors,3 including substance abuse.
The effects of trauma can be extremely hard to live with, no matter how old you are. Thoughts and feelings associated with trauma are invasive, repetitive, and can be terrifying and exhausting. Veteran mental advocate expert Dr. Harry McCleary explains, “Avoidance is a core symptom of PTSD.4 The last thing that anyone that has experienced a trauma wants to do is experience something similar.” One of the most common ways to do this is to use substances.
Substances are easily available, and the relief they provide is immediate.
The problem with this is that it works until it doesn’t. As soon as the effects wear off, the trauma comes back—and often even more so, due to a rebound effect.5 Regularly using substances to cope can quickly lead to dependence and addiction, which only creates more problems. And as long as you’re using substances to avoid your feelings, you’re not developing the coping skills necessary to manage them.
Addiction can also put you in high-risk situations—whether it’s getting more drugs in an unsafe way, or making uninhibited decisions—that lead to further traumas. As McCleary says, “Now you have multiple problems: a substance issue, and a PTSD issue, and one is feeding on another.”
The good news is that both addiction and trauma are highly responsive to treatment.
Trauma-informed care is “an approach in the human service field6 that assumes that an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma.” In practice, this can look like the following:
Trauma-informed therapists work with a knowledge of trauma and the cultural and socioeconomic factors that contribute to it.7 These treatment settings reduce the chance that patients will feel triggered, unsafe, or uncomfortable as they work through their trauma.
Learn more about this approach in our article on finding a trauma-informed rehab.
In rehab, you may spend some time learning how to identify and manage triggers. Substance abuse has a strong connection to PTSD symptoms,8 which makes managing them important. With the support of trained professionals, you can learn new ways of responding to stress within the safe environment that residential care provides.
Trauma and addiction very often go hand in hand. If you have PTSD or another diagnosis along with addiction, it’s a good idea to find a program that specifically treats co-occurring disorders. As Dr. McCleary says, “Substance use and PTSD are such close friends that we’ve developed multiple treatments to treat both at the same time. There are treatment facilities that treat both at the same time. Because that’s how prevalent this is.”
Plenty of qualified professionals specialize in treating people in exactly your position.
All you have to do is reach out to them to take the first step towards healing.
Trauma isn’t fair, but it is a fundamental part of the human experience. And if you’re struggling with its effects, you’re certainly not the only one.
You are normal.
There’s nothing wrong with you.
And you have endless opportunities to heal.
Looking into rehabs that specialize in treating trauma can be a great place to start that healing journey. Visit our directory to learn more about your options and reach out to treatment centers directly.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
Return to Resource Library
Why is fentanyl so dangerous? This powerful opioid can be lethal even in small doses. It’s also hard to detect and is often mixed with other drugs, unbeknownst to the user. Let’s look at the risks involved in taking fentanyl, the challenges in reducing the harm it causes, and what you can do if you … Continue reading “Why Is Fentanyl So Dangerous and Hard to Spot?”
Children, young adults, and adults can suffer mind control and complex trauma. Mind control can also be a broad phenomenon experienced by people groups, organizations, and countries. Other times, it can be used as a directed form of psychological abuse. Complex trauma is the cumulation of “multiple interpersonal threats”1 or abuse during childhood. It may … Continue reading “Mind Control and Complex Trauma”
We believe everyone deserves access to accurate, unbiased information about mental health and addiction. That’s why we have a comprehensive set of treatment providers and don't charge for inclusion. Any center that meets our criteria can list for free. We do not and have never accepted fees for referring someone to a particular center. Providers who advertise with us must be verified by our Research Team and we clearly mark their status as advertisers.
Our goal is to help you choose the best path for your recovery. That begins with information you can trust.