Does Trauma Cause Addiction? Understanding the Link Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

Trauma, including adverse childhood experiences, is a major cause of substance abuse. Trauma can be defined differently for everyone, and the presence of trauma can at times lead toward addiction. Trauma and addiction are often co-occurring disorders, and need to be treated as such. Long-term care is often the best option for treating both symptoms and causes.

When a person suffers from addiction, their friends and loved ones and less-concerned spectators invariably seem to ask “why?” Why did this person end up an addict? Many scramble for the moral high ground, incorrectly insisting that addiction is a sign of weakness or a character flaw. They assume addiction is a choice. They assume the addict failed.

The truth, however, is that nobody just “chooses” to be addicted. There are legitimate reasons leading to addiction to drugs or to alcohol, and they are generally always beyond the realm of individual choice.

One of the leading causes of substance use disorders is, unsurprisingly, trauma.

Trauma, experienced at any point in life, is often a major indicator that someone is susceptible to addiction, and a staggeringly large percentage of those with addiction have trauma in their background. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of drug or alcohol addicts have experienced one or multiple forms of trauma, especially child abuse.

The reasons for this connection are in dispute, and undoubtedly complicated, but the connection itself is incontrovertible. Understanding this connection, and the presence of addiction and trauma as co-occurring disorders, can help treat both, and that treatment can help take control of a life that was altered by both.

Understanding the Causes of Trauma

Trauma is an interesting diagnosis, psychologically, because there is no one cause, and there is no universal cause. There are soldiers who come back from war with solid emotional health, and there are those who come back with severe PTSD. What might seem a mundane near-miss at an intersection to you could have a reverberating impact on your passenger. That’s why it is important to understand the causes of trauma. Some of these include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Participating in violence
  • Witnessing violence
  • Being the victim of violence
  • Domestic abuse
  • Near-death experiences
  • Severe weather events
  • Childhood abuse

The last one can encompass all kinds of terrible trauma, much of which can slowly manifest itself throughout someone’s life. And just as everyone has a different reaction to potentially-traumatic events, everyone has different coping mechanisms, both emotional and biological. That explains some of the varied connections between trauma and addiction.

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Understanding Why Trauma Can Cause Addiction

As we said, there are a lot of complex reasons for why addiction can be caused by trauma. There’s no clear understanding and no direct one-to-one connection. If you drop a bowling ball on your foot and have a broken toe, you understand that sequence of events. Trauma and addiction, however, are more complicated.

The first, and most obvious, explanation is that people who undergo a traumatic experience turn to alcohol and other substances to forget what happened and to get away from the horrible memories in their mind. But the thing is, those horrors aren’t imaginary, and they aren’t strictly memories, either.

Trauma, which can manifest itself as PTSD, alters the chemicals in a person’s brain so that, neurologically, they are reliving the moment. Using substances to alter this isn’t just trying to forget; it is a destructively logical way to get away from what happened.

Addiction is also an altering of chemicals so that the brain is tricked into constantly wanting more of any particular substance. This can co-exist with trauma and PTSD, making an individual more susceptible to addiction.

Adverse childhood experiences are a particularly sharp example of this, as trauma has been shown to alter the parts of the brain responsible for coping mechanisms as well as other behavioral and impulse controls. A kid who underwent trauma may “act up” and “push the boundaries” and start experimenting with drugs or alcohol. We write them off as “bad kids,” but the reality is that the brain is seeking an escape.

So while we may say turning to substances is “simply” an effort to forget, that minimizes the lived physical reality of trauma. And not understanding the causes of addiction makes it nearly impossible to treat.

Treating Addiction and Trauma as Co-Occurring Disorders

When you or a loved one suffers from addiction, it is vitally important for the affected person to get their life back. That can mean the external trappings: a place to live, food on the table, a steady job, and the ability to maintain healthy and loving relationships. But those vitally important factors can’t come into play unless you get into the roots of what it means to get your life back.

It means dealing with how trauma altered your body and your mind.

When trauma and addiction are intertwined, they have to be treated together as co-occurring disorders. Trying to treat addiction without understanding the underlying trauma is shoveling while it’s still snowing. You might make a pathway, but it is already closing up behind you.

Similarly, you can’t treat trauma and PTSD without understanding the role that addiction plays in coping with and maintaining that trauma. Addiction isn’t an adjunct to trauma; it is a terrible and vital part of it.

That kind of treatment can’t happen overnight. Unwinding addiction and learning to cope with trauma are long-term projects, and can require long-term compassionate care. A person needs to analyze and work towards overcoming their addiction in order to deal with the incidents that led them to substance use—and then give themselves the time to understand and address both challenges.

It isn’t easy. Trauma could be a series of events or a single terrible moment, but it seeps like a dark fog throughout a person’s life. Treating that, and the addiction trauma often causes, won’t happen overnight. But it is worth it. It’s worth it to take back your mind.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.