Why Trauma Leads to Addiction in Some, and Not in Others

Why Trauma Leads to Addiction in Some, and Not in Others

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Trauma, as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is described as an event or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as life-threatening or emotionally or physically harmful.[1] Traumatic events that those experience, whether as children or adults, shape the way individuals view themselves, as well as the world around them.

Why does trauma lead to addiction in some people, but not others?

Trauma comes in multiple forms including:

  • Physical/Sexual Assault
  • PTSD
  • Domestic Violence
  • Verbal/Physical/Emotional Abuse
  • Neglect (especially as a child)
  • Bullying/Harassment
  • Terminal Illnesses
  • Witnessing Death/Loss of Life[1]

A research study conducted by Kaiser Permanente found that children who experience four or more traumatic events are five times more likely to become an alcoholic. They are also 60% more likely to become obese, and up to 46 times more likely to become an injection drug user than the general population.[2]

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Another report conducted by SAMHSA found that over two-thirds of clients in addiction recovery health care settings have experienced one or more traumatic life events themselves.  Those who do not understand or acknowledge their trauma often leave it untreated.[3] This trauma can manifest itself in fear and hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a result, a large percentage of those individuals use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate in order to help manage and cope with the effects of the trauma.3 This reason is why trauma leads to addiction.

The Biology Behind Trauma

From a biological perspective, the human brain plays a large part in an individual’s ability to respond and adapt to situations they experience throughout their life. The prefrontal cortex is the rational part where consciousness lives. This is where processing and reasoning occurs, and we make meaning of language. When trauma occurs, people enter a fight, flight, or freeze state, which can result in the prefrontal cortex shutting down.[4] The brain becomes somewhat disorganized and overwhelmed because of the trauma, while the body goes into a survival mode and shuts down the higher reasoning and language structures of the brain. The result of the metabolic shutdown is a profound imprinted stress response.

Why Trauma Leads to Addiction

Trauma has no boundaries regarding age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. The effects of traumatic events can be devastating to individuals, families, and entire communities. That being the case, how one responds to traumatic experiences is personal and includes several factors.

Substance use often emerges as a maladaptive strategy used to manage the negative results of trauma exposure, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.[5] Individuals may experience negative emotions, a lack of resources to help manage those emotions, and as a consequence turn to substances to temporarily relieve the undesirable feeling of negative emotional states.[6] Researchers suggest that exposure to traumatic events can elicit negative emotions that persist over time, are difficult for individuals to manage, and potentially lead to using substances to self‐medication.[7]

Recovering from Trauma and Addiction

Those struggling with addictions and a history of trauma often run into difficulty when in treatment programs. They often do not realize that the trauma needs to be addressed before the addiction. Substance use is often one way to cope and numb out the impact of trauma. Therefore, it is important to treat both trauma and addiction. Doing so will allow clinicians to treat the root of the addiction, as well as the addiction itself.

Mental health disorders related to trauma, including PTSD and anxiety, and substance abuse are considered co-occurring. It is important that both must be addressed to improve the chances of long-term recovery. Ocean Hills Recovery offers multiple services, including a comprehensive inpatient dual diagnosis treatment program, to help clients heal on multiple levels. If you or someone you care about is ready to begin their journey towards recovery contact us today.



[1] https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence

[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11814159/

[3] https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/wcdvs-article.pdf

[4] https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/trauma/p3.html

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5064859/

[6]  https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Edward_Khantzian/publication/279937759_The_Self-Medication_Hypothesis_Revised_The_Dually_Diagnosed_Patient/links/55f2d4ad08ae1d9803921bac/The-Self-Medication-Hypothesis-Revised-The-Dually-Diagnosed-Patient

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3466352/

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