Trauma & Addiction: Is There a Connection?

Woman talking to therapist

Jana van der Linde April 30, 2020

Is there a connection between trauma and addiction? Can one lead to the other? The simple answer is yes. Unresolved trauma puts a person at a higher risk of developing an addiction. 

But, addiction isn’t a cookie-cutter disease. The relationship between trauma and addiction is tricky. A better grasp of this link comes with looking at trauma and addiction from different angles. 

In this post, we share a few insights into links between trauma and addiction. Let’s kick off with a closer look at the concept of trauma. 

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is a comprehensive concept described as any and all these:

  • Experiencing life-threatening events 
  • Fearing for personal safety 
  • Experiencing intense pain 
  • Witnessing tragedy or violence

Adults experience trauma differently and our thresholds for coping with these experiences vary. Children are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of trauma. 

Childhood Trauma Increases Vulnerability To Substance Use Later in Life

Childhood experiences play a formative role in life. Studies found that people who experience trauma in their early years are more susceptible to substance use disorders later in life. Statistics suggest nearly two-thirds of people battling substance abuse have a history of childhood trauma. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Servies Administration (SAMHSA) spearheads public health efforts to reduce the impact of substance abuse. SAMHSA acknowledges links between adverse childhood experiences and addiction, and that healing from childhood trauma is key in curbing its effects. 

Young boy looking sad

Childhood Trauma and Addiction: A Useful Explanation

Dr. Gabor Maté is a well-known author renowned for his neurobiology-based addiction work. His philosophy doesn’t always align with mainstream medical findings (such as the disease model approach), but his findings provide a useful interpretation of the connection between childhood trauma and addiction.

Maté explains addiction as a case of human development gone askew. He believes all addictive behavior is the brain’s way of escaping emotional pain. 

He presents, pretty conclusively, that the part of the brain where addiction occurs is also responsible for capacities like emotional pain relief, regulating stress, and accepting love. People acquire these capacities at a prime brain development time – during early childhood – and it relies heavily on a nurturing environment. Adverse experiences or a lack of nurturing at an early age stunts normal neural growth.

To put Maté’s neuroscience in simple terms: childhood trauma prevents healthy development of parts of the brain, and this underdeveloped area is the root of addiction problems.

Childhood trauma like abuse, neglect, injury, and loss are widely researched topics. Research, parallel to Maté’s, also finds childhood adversity a common culprit in addiction development. 

The same goes for post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). PTSD is often seen as a major source of addiction issues. 

PTSD and Addiction – It Can Go Both Ways

Many people suffer from the co-occurrence of substance use disorder (SUD) and PTSD. The high level of comorbidity between these distressing disorders affirms the connection between trauma and addiction. 

Let’s also look at this from the opposite angle. Can addiction lead to trauma? Indeed. 

The American Psychiatric Association estimates PTSD affects one out of every eleven adults during their lifetime. These statistics reflect PTSD cases that might result in, as well as from substance use.  

Trapped in a Trauma Cycle

How does addiction increase the likelihood of experiencing trauma? 

The cruel irony of seeking relief from trauma through substance use is the immense risk of further trauma it brings.

People repeatedly risk their safety by the places (and lengths) they go to, to get drugs. Also, erratic behavior from substance abuse puts people in harm’s way and increases the likelihood of traumatic events occurring. The cruel irony of seeking relief from trauma through substance use is the immense risk of further trauma it brings. It’s a vicious cycle of trauma leading to addiction, leading to more trauma. 

Drawing connections to trauma can be helpful in understanding substance use struggles but bear in mind: addiction is a complex condition manifesting in different ways in different people. Trauma is a single yet prominent shade on the grim color palette of addiction. 

Looking for Addiction Treatment in LA? 

Silicon Beach Treatment Center offers holistic addiction treatment in LA. Our center’s intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. We also offer partial hospitalization (PHP) and outpatient (OP) services. If you’re looking for LA addiction treatment, let’s talk. 

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