Experiencing trauma impacts a person in a variety of ways, from their physical to their mental health. Depending on the degree of the trauma, effects can be experienced for months to years and even decades. For some, the trauma is so severe that they begin using substances to cope with the emotional discomfort. In many cases, this can lead to substance abuse and addiction. Trauma has been linked to addiction for quite some time, and the association continues to be strong. In this blog, we will go into depth on why trauma and addiction are so closely related and will share some ideas for trauma-informed care.

Defining Trauma and Addiction

Trauma encompasses a wide range of experiences that leave a lasting emotional or psychological imprint. It can result from various sources, including physical or emotional abuse, neglect, accidents, or witnessing violence. Childhood trauma has been identified as a significant precursor to a range of mental health issues, including addiction.

Addiction, on the other hand, is a condition characterized by compulsive substance use or behavior, despite harmful consequences. While substance abuse often takes center stage in discussions about addiction, it can manifest in various forms, like gambling, sex, or even work.

The Nexus of Trauma and Addiction
The Escapism Mechanism:

Those who have experienced trauma, especially during childhood, may turn to substances or addictive behaviors as a means of escape. The numbing effect provided by substances offers a temporary reprieve from the haunting memories and emotional pain associated with trauma. This coping mechanism, while initially providing relief, can evolve into a self-destructive cycle of addiction. 

Utilizing substances can calm the central nervous system and allow people to quiet their internal thoughts. Especially for those who have experienced major trauma, this can be incredibly enticing. War veterans, for example, tend to experience a higher incidence of addiction as they suffer from severe effects like night terrors and flashbacks.

The Neurobiological Impact:

Scientific research has illuminated the neurobiological changes that occur in response to trauma and addiction. Traumatic experiences can alter the brain’s structure and function, impacting areas involved in emotional regulation and decision-making. These alterations may heighten vulnerability to addiction by disrupting the brain’s reward system and amplifying the desire for substances or behaviors that provide temporary relief.

The Lifelong Effects of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma, marked by its occurrence during formative years, casts a long shadow over an individual’s life. According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, adults who experience trauma during childhood are significantly more likely to develop substance use disorders later in life. The study found that approximately two-thirds of individuals in addiction treatment reported a history of trauma.

In addition to this, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study demonstrated a direct correlation between the number of adverse childhood experiences and the risk of substance abuse in adulthood. People with a high ACE score were found to be more susceptible to a range of health and social issues, including addiction.

Common Types of Childhood Trauma
  • Physical Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Domestic Violence
  • Community Violence
  • Bullying
  • Medical Trauma
  • Accidents or Disasters
  • Loss or Separation
Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care acknowledges the prevalence of trauma and seeks to create an environment that fosters safety, trust, and empowerment. This approach recognizes the interconnectedness of trauma and addiction, understanding that treating one without addressing the other may yield limited success.

  • Integrated Treatment Models: Many treatment programs now adopt integrated models that address both trauma and addiction simultaneously. This holistic approach recognizes the need to unravel the layers of trauma while simultaneously providing tools and strategies to overcome addictive behaviors. Therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have shown promise in helping people process and overcome the effects of trauma.
  • Community Support and Education: Creating a supportive community is vital for those in recovery from substance abuse. Support groups and educational initiatives that focus on trauma and addiction help break the stigma surrounding these issues and provide a space for them to share their experiences. Increased awareness within communities can also contribute to the early identification and intervention of those at risk of developing addiction because of trauma.
Final Thoughts

Childhood trauma serves as a major precursor to addiction, as well as other sources of serious trauma. Though the two have a distinct connection, experiencing trauma does not need to result in addiction. Taking care of yourself and being conscious of any indulgence in mind-altering substances can help protect you from falling into a pattern of addiction. Through embracing a holistic approach, we can offer hope and healing to those who have been dealt a difficult hand and are working to overcome past trauma and addiction.

New Dimensions Can Help!

If you are struggling with a trauma and using chemicals to address your pain, New Dimensions can help.  We have Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs for adolescents and adults to address mental health issues and chemical dependency.  To learn more about our services, including Psychological Testing, Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP), Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP), and Interventions for Substance Abuse, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at www.nddtreatment.com.  To learn more about individual, family, and couples counseling visit www.mhthrive.com.


Keywords: trauma and addiction; childhood trauma; substance abuse; addiction


Belfrage A, Mjølhus Njå AL, Lunde S, et al. Traumatic experiences and PTSD symptoms in substance use disorder: A comparison of recovered versus current users. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2023;40(1):61-75. doi:10.1177/14550725221122222

Dass-Brailsford, P., & Myrick, A. C. (2010). Psychological Trauma and Substance Abuse: The Need for an Integrated Approach. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 11(4), 202–213. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26638083

Konkolÿ Thege B, Horwood L, Slater L, Tan MC, Hodgins DC, Wild TC. Relationship between interpersonal trauma exposure and addictive behaviors: a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry. 2017 May 4;17(1):164. doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1323-1. PMID: 28472931; PMCID: PMC5418764.