Trauma can play a significant role in the development and perpetuation of addiction. While not everyone who experiences trauma will develop an addiction, there appears to be a strong correlation between traumatic experiences and substance use disorders.1 So how are trauma and addiction connected, and what causes people to turn to substance abuse after experiencing a traumatic event?

Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism

People who have experienced trauma—such as physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, or other distressing events—may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their emotional pain and distress. Substance use can provide temporary relief from the symptoms of trauma, such as anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts.


Trauma survivors may use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication to numb or escape the emotional and psychological pain associated with their traumatic experiences. Self-medication can provide temporary relief, but it often leads to addiction as tolerance builds and the need for the substance increases.

Psychological Impact

Trauma can lead to various psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and depression. These conditions can increase the risk of addiction, as individuals may use substances to alleviate their symptoms.

Altered Brain Chemistry

Trauma can lead to changes in the brain’s reward and pleasure pathways. These changes can make individuals more susceptible to addiction, as substances can provide a sense of pleasure and relief that might be hard to obtain through natural rewards.

Social Isolation

Trauma can lead to social isolation, as individuals withdraw from friends and family due to shame, guilt, or fear of judgment. Such isolation can create an environment where addiction can thrive, as there may be fewer support systems in place to help the individual.

Peer Influence

Individuals with a history of trauma may be more likely to associate with peers who also use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. This behavior increases exposure to substance abuse and the likelihood of developing an addiction.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Trauma and addiction often co-occur with other mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. This is known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders, and it can complicate the treatment of the addiction and the underlying trauma.

How to Treat Trauma and Addiction

Effective treatment for trauma and addiction often involves addressing both the addiction and the trauma itself at the same time. After all, you cannot treat one without also treating the other. Trauma-informed care recognizes the role of trauma in addiction and seeks to provide support that is sensitive to the individual’s traumatic experiences. This may involve therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), among others, to help individuals address both their addiction and the trauma that contributes to it. Seeking professional help with a treatment program like Steps to Recovery can enable those struggling with trauma and addiction to find healing. Effective treatment can provide the necessary support and strategies to address both issues effectively. To learn more about how Steps to Recovery might be the right solution, find a nearby location and reach out today. References 1. Depression and Anxiety. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population.