Trauma and Addiction: Is There a Link?
Many people who struggle with addiction have also suffered trauma at some point. The connection between trauma and addiction is strong, and it runs both ways: the experience of trauma increases the likelihood of developing an addiction, and substance abuse can make a person more likely to suffer some form of trauma.
This article examines the relationship between trauma and addiction and explores the merits of a trauma-informed approach to addiction treatment.
The definition of trauma can be subjective, because an event that traumatizes one person may have little effect on another. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma is defined as a “single event, multiple events, or circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and emotionally harmful and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s emotional, social, physical, or spiritual well-being.”1
Trauma may be the result of abuse or neglect, or it may be brought on by a number of terrifying experiences: accidents, violence, near-death experiences or military combat. Regardless of its cause, trauma is not uncommon among Americans. One survey showed that over 50 percent of women and 60 percent of men reported at least one traumatic incident in their past.
Addiction and Trauma
Trauma is a significant risk factor for substance abuse. A widely accepted theory suggests that victims of trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the stress and lingering effects of their traumatic experience. Substance abuse acts as a form of self-medication, numbing the painful emotions that result from trauma.
Research repeatedly confirms the link between trauma and addiction. One study reveals that up to 80 percent of women who enter substance abuse treatment have suffered a physical or sexual assault at some point, while another study showed that at least 2 out of 10 veterans who struggle with substance abuse also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.2
Not only does a traumatic experience increase the likelihood of addiction, but substance abuse can increase the risk of suffering trauma. Drug and alcohol abuse can lead to reckless, high-risk behaviors. People who struggle with substance abuse are more likely to encounter a traumatic experience that stems from this unsafe activity, either experiencing harm themselves or witnessing something happening to another person.
Trauma-informed Addiction Treatment
Because of the strong link between trauma and addiction, it’s important for treatment centers to take a sensitive and compassionate approach to each client’s treatment. Typical treatment programs can be a minefield of potential triggers for a person who has suffered trauma, and a trauma survivor’s symptoms may even be mistaken for mental illness. A trauma-informed approach to addiction goes beyond addressing substance abuse; it acknowledges the lingering effects of trauma and offers a safe environment that promotes healing.
The effects of trauma are long-lasting, and it’s not easy for survivors to move forward. When addiction is involved, it’s even more difficult to repair the damage. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and trauma, it’s important to know that help is available. With a trauma-sensitive treatment approach, it’s possible to overcome addiction and heal the wounds of trauma.