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The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

Trauma and Addiction Connection June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, and in recognition, we’d like to explore the link between trauma and addiction. Unfortunately, those with substance use disorders are more likely to experience trauma, and the inverse is also true. Read on to understand why this is the case, and to learn about the treatment methods available to those with co-occurring disorders.  

Defining Trauma

Before we can explore the link between trauma and addiction, we first must define trauma. This word encompasses a wide variety of negative life experiences. When someone fears for their safety, witnesses a tragic event, or undergoes intense pain, they experience trauma. Sometimes, such as in instances of abuse or military deployment, the trauma is repeated and ongoing. Each person is impacted differently by these occurrences, depending on their personal resilience. In general, adults will cope better than children.  

Examples of Traumatic Events

A variety of experiences can be categorized as traumatic. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Child abuse
  • Serious pain or injury
  • Domestic violence
  • Neglect or abandonment
  • Bullying
  • Accidents (car wrecks, falls)
  • Robberies or other crimes
  • Sexual assault
  • Serious illness
  • Combat
  • Terrorism
  • Natural disasters
  • Moving to a new place
  • Death of a loved one
  • Incarceration
  • Witnessing the death or injury of others


The Trauma/Addiction Connection

A large body of research has been conducted to fully understand why those with traumatic pasts turn to substance use – and why those who misuse drugs and alcohol also have higher rates of traumatic experiences than the general population. Kaiser Permanente conducted a study of adverse childhood experiences. They found that a child who experiences five or more traumatic events is five times more likely to become an alcoholic, and up to 46 times more likely to become an injection-drug user than the general population. Research by the Veterans Administration has indicated that between 35 and 75% of veterans diagnosed with PTSD abuse alcohol or drugs. The rationale behind these connections is complicated. Some people may attempt to dull feelings and memories associated with trauma by using drugs or alcohol. Many readers may not know that PTSD actually has a very dramatic set of physical symptoms – hypersensitivity to sound or sudden movements, insomnia, and agitation are common in those with this diagnosis. In order to understand the opposite phenomenon – drug users are more likely to be the victims of trauma – you must understand the effect that substance use has on the brain. Drug use reprograms the brain’s reward system, and drastically reduces one’s decision-making ability. This encourages a marked increase in risk-taking behavior. In general, addicts’ lifestyles put them in harm’s way much more than non-addicts’. Driving under the influence, associating with only other users, going to dangerous neighborhoods, and experiencing the effects of mind-altering drugs all set someone up to experience or witness traumatic events.  

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders

When someone has both a substance use disorder and another mental illness, that person is said to have a dual diagnosis, also called co-occurring disorders. The path to treatment for these individuals is markedly different from that of those only suffering from addiction. In order to ensure ongoing sobriety and improved mental health, it is vital to address both areas of concern simultaneously. Otherwise, those with persistent traumatic memories may once again turn to drugs and alcohol, or those who are addicted could find themselves in dangerous situations again. Like recovery from substance use, recovery from trauma is an ongoing process that requires continuous introspection and external, expert support.  

Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment

At Makana Path, we understand the importance of treating trauma and substance use disorders simultaneously. Our well-appointed Austin, TX facilities are uniquely equipped with professionals who specialize in this field. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction and past trauma, we encourage you to reach out today. Our compassionate admissions staff will walk you through the process of verifying your insurance, so that you can get on the path to treatment without worry or financial burden.