Trauma and Addiction

Trauma and Addiction

Table of Contents

Types of Trauma

Research has shown that individuals who experienced traumatic events, particularly during childhood, are often linked to substance use disorders (SUDs).1 According to the American Psychiatric Association, trauma is defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical.” Prolonged conditions from trauma may include erratic or unpredictable emotions, flashback episodes, strained relationships with others, and physical symptoms such as head pains or stomach issues.2 Traumatic experiences can make everyday functioning challenging for many victims. Traumatic experiences include, but are not limited to:

Physical Assault

Physical assault is an attack on an individual either by an individual or group and with or without a weapon.3

Physical assault includes:

Provocation: insults, death threats

Intimidation: making a fist, pushing, stalking, stealing/throwing objects

Brutality: attacks, struggles, fights

Punches and injuries: bites, bruises, injuries, dislocations, fractures

Assault with a weapon

Armed robbery (with a firearm or using force or the threat of force)

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is defined as sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the victim’s explicit consent.4

Some forms of sexual assault include:

Attempted rape

Fondling or unwanted sexual touching

Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator's body

Penetration of the victim's body, also known as rape

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is when one partner uses intimidation tactics, assault, or other abusive behaviors to form a pattern of control over the other partner.5

Domestic violence includes:

Physical Violence

Sexual Violence

Psychological Violence

Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is when someone attempts to control their victim not by physical means such as hitting or pushing, but rather by perpetrating that victim’s emotions to use as a weapon against them.6

Parental Neglect

Parental neglect, often known as child neglect, is a parent or guardian’s failure to provide a child with basic, age-appropriate necessities. Neglect can result in either physical or psychological harm.

Examples of child neglect include:

Neglect in nutrition

Neglect in education

Neglect in hygiene


Bullying is aggressive behavior between school-age children that often involves using power balance as a means of control. Bullying behavior is commonly repeated and can cause physical and psychological harm to the victim.7

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are events such as floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis that can cause terrain damage or loss of lives.

Natural disasters often create terrifying memories for victims. The recurring memories of traumatic events such as natural disasters have the potential to develop into mental and physical illnesses.


Individuals who have been victims of traumatic, severe accidents commonly experience emotional distress. Victims’ reactions may include PTSD symptoms, anxiety, depression, sleep issues or reoccurring nightmares, and more.8


Although the illness is not perceived as a traumatic experience to some, experiencing a severe illness can leave permanent damage, particularly to children. Individuals or children who receive long-term treatments or invasive medical procedures due to a chronic illness have an increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress symptoms.9

How are Different Types of Trauma Linked to Addiction?

While trauma is an emotional response, it is linked to behavior that is the result of one’s cognition – or the way one thinks. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “From a psychological and neurological perspective, addiction is a disorder of altered cognition. The brain regions and processes that underlie addiction overlap extensively with those that are involved in essential cognitive functions, including learning, memory, attention, reasoning, and impulse control.”10

Research on cognitive-behavioral therapy suggests that addiction is the behavior resulting from an individual’s negative perception either of themselves or their situation. An individual addicted to a substance is commonly the result of unidentified perceptions, experiences, or traumas.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Addiction

Addiction commonly results in adults who experienced childhood adversity. Research suggests that the earlier a child is exposed to hardship, the earlier the exposure to substance use disorders.

In their findings, the NIH states, “when adversity occurs early, it may disrupt developmental processes, causing disorganization that interferes with normal psychological growth. Compromised development, in turn, puts individuals at risk for a variety of mental health problems.”11

A child’s developmental years are crucial. In the face of adversity, their development can be disrupted with unhealthy experiences. These experiences challenge their mental and emotional stability, making them more vulnerable to self-medicating through substance misuse.

PTSD and Addiction

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has emotionally debilitating effects. Some of the most common causes of PTSD are military combat, violent assault, natural disasters, sexual assault, and childhood abuse. PTSD symptoms can be extremely distressing and cause significant distress on an individual, leading to substance use as a means to escape that distress.11

According to research, 52% of males and 28% of females with PTSD meet the lifetime criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.12

Physical Trauma vs. Emotional Trauma

Although trauma is an umbrella term for a victim’s experience, it is important to distinguish the difference between physical trauma and emotional trauma.

Physical trauma, in some cases, leaves physical wounds on the body. Examples of physical trauma wounds would be the loss of a limb, scars on the body, or a disabled part of the body. Emotional trauma leaves invisible wounds. Emotional trauma can result in fear of loud noises, discomfort around the opposite gender, or extreme insecurities.

Despite the differences between physical and emotional trauma, neither supersedes the other for therapy needs. Both physical and emotional trauma can leave permanent wounds on the victims.

Emotional and Psychological Trauma and Addiction

Emotional trauma, also known as psychological trauma, is associated with painful flashbacks and memories. Emotionally traumatic experiences leave wounds that have affected a victim’s brain development, though we cannot see the effect. Self-medication is how most victims of emotional trauma develop an addiction, either at a young age or later into their adult life.

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

Physical Trauma Symptoms13




Behavioral Trauma Symptoms13

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of addiction include, but are not limited to14:

Treating Trauma and Addiction

There are numerous ways to treat different types of trauma. Trauma therapy styles vary on a case-by-case basis yet target the same challenges.

Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis is a recent form of treatment for victims with both SUD and a mental health disorder. In the 1990s, individuals seeking treatment for mental illness while struggling with substance misuse were turned away until their addiction was resolved. However, further research discovered that underlying psychiatric disorders cause substance abuse issues.15

A dual diagnosis treatment is now available to qualifying individuals with mental health disorders with simultaneous substance abuse challenges.


Different forms of treatment are designed to address individuals with SUDs and traumatic stress, such as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). DBT is a cognitive behavioral therapy meant to “teach people how to live in the moment, develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their relationships with others.”16


Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is defined as “a psychotherapy treatment that alleviates the distress associated with traumatic memories.”17

During EMDR, the traumatic memory or event is brought to the forefront of the patient’s mind while the therapist either distracts the patient with hand movements or with EMDR tappers. This method reduces the distress associated with the patient’s negative memories and flashbacks.17


A detoxing program is a critical way to target substance use disorder. In most cases, detoxing should be monitored either by a doctor or medical professional due to the possible severe symptoms.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment recovery programs, also known as residential programs, allow patients with SUD to reside in a monitored and structured facility while recovering from addiction. These facilities offer 24-hour medical support alongside a trained staff for emotional support.




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