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Did you know nearly two-thirds of all individuals receiving treatment for drug abuse report being physically, sexually or emotionally abused as a child?  While this statistic can’t be attributed as a singular cause for drug abuse, research shows that traumatic childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, crime, or accidents can lead to addictive behaviors later in life.

Just because a person experiences something traumatic early or later in life does not mean they will automatically develop a substance abuse problem or behavioral issues, but it does have the capability to influence their behavior as a result.

Trauma Explained

We all hear the word “trauma” thrown around frequently, especially in regards to mental illness, substance abuse and behavioral problems. Research makes it clear that trauma plays a role in addiction, but in order to fully understand that connection, we must first understand what trauma is.

There are three main important aspects to understand about trauma:

  1. Psychological trauma is an event or experience that makes a person fear for their own physical or mental well-being and compromises their ability to cope.3
  2. Traumatic experiences are often defined by the way an individual perceives an event or experience, which is completely subjective.
  3. Traumatic circumstances may be singular events or ongoing occurrences in either the distant or recent past.

The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

Trauma and addiction are strongly related. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, research has shown that adverse childhood experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, or crime are strongly related to the development and prevalence of substance abuse. Exposure to chronic stress can also disrupt nervous system development, which may hinder a child’s ability to cope with negative emotions.

Because of this, the child may begin to adopt other coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or other addictive behaviors. These behaviors may also lead to higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

There are many kinds of traumatic experiences or events that may lead to addictive behaviors, but situations that leave people with feelings of intense fear or helplessness often are the culprits. These may include:

  • Grief – The emotions experienced after losing a loved one or experiencing some other kind of loss can create intense feelings of confusion, anger, and devastation.
  • Sexual abuse – Most sexual offenses are committed by someone the victim knows, which can result in feelings of betrayal, shame, and anxiety.
  • Catastrophic incidents – Sudden, unexpected accidental deaths or natural disasters are shocking and far beyond anyone’s control, often times leaving individuals feeling helpless and lost.
  • Physical abuse – More than 10 million Americans are victims of physical violence each year and victims of domestic abuse are more likely to suffer from depression or suicidal tendencies.

The complexity of the circumstances listed above often leaves a person feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. Whether a traumatic event is experienced as a child or an adult, individuals may use substance abuse as a way to cope with it. Hence the link between trauma and addiction.

In many instances, drugs and alcohol are a way to escape reality or numb feelings of pain and anxiety. In other instances, addictive substances may be abused to diminish feelings of depression or to feel happy and carefree.

Addressing Trauma in Addiction Treatment

Because trauma is an underlying cause of addiction, we must also address these psychological issues in drug and alcohol rehab. This is often done through behavioral therapies and medication-assisted treatment with drugs like Lexapro. Although unaddressed trauma severely increases the risk of a person developing substance abuse, research shows effective treatment approaches and support can help them overcome it.

Trauma-informed substance abuse treatment is outlined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration with six key principles:

  1. Safety. Safety is a top priority in trauma-informed substance abuse treatment. It is vital that counselors, medical professionals, and all staff involved create an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for all clients.
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency. Substance abuse treatment should be transparent at all times. This means family members should be well-informed about their loved one’s progress, clients should be aware of treatment goals and strategies, and staff should be honest and open about all aspects of treatment.
  3. Peer support. Collaborating and communicating with other individuals who have also experienced trauma and are in recovery is a key component of effective substance abuse treatment. This allows individuals to achieve a greater sense of self-awareness while also learning to develop trust, compassion and healthy relationships with others. Clients also benefit from the sharing of personal experiences and can use that positive reinforcement to fuel their recovery and sobriety.
  4. Collaboration and mutuality. It’s important for staff members of treatment organizations to develop a team atmosphere and emphasize the fact that healing does not happen in isolation. Recovery is relational, and collaboration and mutuality are essential in making sure everyone plays their part.
  5. Empowerment, voice, and choice. Clients and trauma victims receiving treatment for substance abuse treatment should always have a voice in the decision-making processes involved. Instead of controlling the treatment plan, counselors and staff should be facilitators, providing high-quality treatment options and the necessary information clients need to make informed choices about their recovery plan.
  6. Cultural, historical, and gender issues. There is no room for cultural or gender biases or stereotypes in trauma-informed substance abuse treatment. Processes and treatment services should be sensitive and responsive to the various cultural needs of clients from all backgrounds.

Psychological trauma has a broad definition and an extensive reach into the lives of those it touches, but trauma-informed treatment can effectively treat a person’s addiction by breaking down barriers associated with shame, fear, and vulnerability.

Facing Your Own Trauma and Addiction

You may have traumatic life experiences that are contributing to your addiction, whether you realize it or not. Enrolling in a long-term rehab program for drug and alcohol addiction can provide an adequate amount of time to revisit and process these life experiences and learn how to cope with trauma in a healthier way. If you have additional questions about trauma-informed addiction treatment or drug and alcohol rehab at Nova, please contact our admissions team today.



  1. https://archives.drugabuse.gov/NIDA_Notes/NNVol13N2/exploring.html
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
  3. https://www.sidran.org/resources/for-survivors-and-loved-ones/what-is-psychological-trauma/
  4. https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/sites/default/files/resources/aces-behavioral-health-problems.pdf
  5. https://blogs.psychcentral.com/addiction-recovery/2012/03/emotional-trauma-addiction/
  6. http://www.csom.org/pubs/needtoknow_fs.pdf
  7. http://ncadv.org/files/Domestic%20Violence%20and%20Physical%20Abuse%20NCADV.pdf
  8. http://ncadv.org/learn-more/statistics
  9. https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA14-4884/SMA14-4884.pdf
  10. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12300850_Childhood_trauma_as_a_correlate_of_lifetime_opiate_use_in_psychiatric_patients
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