October 23, 2023

Complex Trauma and Alcohol Addiction

Complex trauma and alcoholism are deeply intertwined, often stemming from unprocessed emotions creating a web of pain and dependency.

complex trauma and alcoholism

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Susana Spiegel

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Last Update on October 26, 2023

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Complex trauma and alcoholism are deeply intertwined, often stemming from unprocessed emotions creating a web of pain and dependency.

Recognizing and addressing these root causes is paramount to tackling addiction effectively.

Definition and Origins of Complex Trauma

What is Complex Trauma?

Complex trauma is the psychological distress arising from multiple traumatic events, often occurring over extended periods and frequently during formative years.

Unlike singular incidents that can cause trauma, complex trauma weaves its effects over time, leading to prolonged stress, pain, and anxiety.

Single-incident trauma vs. Complex Trauma

It’s important to distinguish between single-incident trauma and complex trauma.

While both can be deeply distressing, single-incident trauma results from one specific event, like a car accident or natural disaster.

On the other hand, complex trauma emerges from a series of events or long-standing situations—things like ongoing abuse, prolonged neglect, or being trapped in a conflict zone.

Origins of Complex Trauma

Complex trauma doesn’t appear out of the blue.

Its roots lie in prolonged exposure to repetitive, severe stressors, especially during childhood1 or adolescence.

This can include consistent emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, long-term domestic violence, or living in areas of persistent conflict and danger.

Over time, these stressors embed themselves deep within an individual’s psyche, often leading to damaging physical and emotional outcomes, including the risk of alcoholism.

Understanding the origins of complex trauma can explain why some individuals turn to alcohol to cope, highlighting the profound connection between alcohol and complex trauma.

Signs of Complex Trauma

Signs of Complex Trauma Description
Emotional Dysregulation Individuals with complex trauma struggle with their emotions, often showing mood swings between anger, sadness, and happiness. They may also feel persistent emptiness or hopelessness.
Dissociation Those affected may feel detached from reality, as if watching their life from afar. Dissociation acts as a defense against painful trauma memories.
Attachment Difficulties Complex trauma impacts relationships, leading to difficulties in forming secure attachments. This often stems from past betrayals or breaches of trust.
Hyperarousal and Hypervigilance Victims may be always on alert, easily startled, and constantly expecting danger, even in safe situations. This perpetual alertness is mentally and physically exhausting.
Chronic Physical Ailments Chronic trauma stress can lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach issues, or cardiovascular problems, stemming from the trauma's enduring stress.

Complex Trauma Leading to Alcoholism

The intertwining of complex trauma and alcoholism involves emotional evasion, seeking solace, and physiological implications.


The Use of Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism

For many, trauma is an ever-present shadow, casting a long and dark shadow on day-to-day life.

During these times, Alcohol can often be disguised as a refuge.

Consuming, people find a temporary numbing of the sharp edges of their feelings and memories.  

The buzz, the warmth, the temporary lapse in memory.

These effects act as a protective shield, protecting one from the deep-down pains of trauma, even momentarily.


The Cycle of Avoidance

Confronting the wrath of trauma head-on is no simple task.

It’s a maze of emotions, memories, and often, overwhelming pain.

Many find a semblance of relief in substances to bypass this daunting challenge, with alcohol being a common choice.

Living with the grief of a traumatic can be extremely hard when emotions are unprocessed.

But if one can drown out the noise of trauma with the haze of alcohol, perhaps it can be kept at bay.

Unfortunately, this cycle of avoidance, of perpetually sidestepping the core issue, only strengthens the chains of addiction.

It’s a vicious cycle.

The more one avoids, the more one drinks, and the more one drinks, the deeper the avoidance goes.


The Physiological Effects

Beyond the emotional and psychological aspects, there’s a very tangible, biological connection between alcohol and trauma.

Alcohol impacts the brain’s neurotransmitters, the chemicals responsible for our moods, emotions, and stress responses.

For someone with a traumatized brain, which might already be in a state of imbalance or heightened sensitivity, alcohol can initially seem like a solution, providing a fleeting sense of calm or even euphoria.

However, with regular consumption, alcohol can exacerbate the brain’s dysregulation, intensifying trauma symptoms and solidifying the path to addiction.

By understanding these links between complex trauma and alcoholism, we shed light on the intricacies of human behavior and emphasize the importance of addressing root causes rather than symptoms alone.


Signs and Characteristics of Alcoholism with Complex Trauma

Signs and Characteristics
Increased Tolerance and Distinct Withdrawal Symptoms: Individuals with complex trauma often develop a heightened tolerance for alcohol. Additionally, the trauma may make their withdrawal symptoms more complex and emotionally charged. This can make it more challenging for them to quit or cut down on drinking.
Using Alcohol as an Escape: Using alcoholism as escapism2. Many individuals with complex trauma use alcohol to forget or numb traumatic memories. It becomes a temporary refuge from the emotional pain associated with their past experiences.
Episodes of Dissociation or Flashbacks: When intoxicated, individuals with complex trauma may experience episodes of dissociation, where they feel disconnected from reality, or flashbacks, where they vividly relive traumatic events. These experiences can be distressing and may lead to increased alcohol consumption as they attempt to cope with the emotional turmoil.
Heightened Risk of Blackouts and Risky Behaviors: Alcoholism in the context of complex trauma can lead to a higher risk of blackouts, during which individuals have no recollection of their actions. This can result in dangerous behaviors, including self-destructive actions or placing themselves in risky situations.
Emotional Volatility and Self-Harm: When intoxicated, individuals with complex trauma may become emotionally volatile, experiencing intense mood swings. This emotional instability can contribute to increased instances of self-harm or suicidal ideation, mainly when they are under alcohol.

Treatment and Healing

Paths to Recovery
Address trauma and alcoholism root causes for holistic growth.
Trauma-Informed Care Understanding trauma allows tailored treatments for effective healing.
Treatment Modalities CBT: Replace negative patterns.
EMDR: Process traumatic memories.
Support & Community Shared experiences in supportive environments aid recovery.
Dual-Diagnosis Treat intertwined trauma and addiction for reduced relapse risks.
Holistic Approach Beyond mental: physical activities, diet, social integration.
Comprehensive support makes healing from trauma and alcoholism achievable.

The Help You Deserve

Navigating trauma and alcoholism is challenging and filled with past pain. Understand the link between trauma and addiction; remember, you’re not alone.

Seeking help is a sign of strength. Every step towards recovery offers hope. You deserve healing and a bright future; with support, it’s attainable.

If you or someone you care about is facing addiction or mental health challenges, we encourage you to contact us at Cornerstone Healing Center in Arizona.

Our Arizona alcohol treatment facility is grounded in evidence-based practices and specializes in co-occurring disorders, including complex trauma and alcoholism, promoting long-term recovery by addressing underlying issues.


[1] Childhood maltreatment, intervening variables, and adult psychological difficulties in women: an overview

[2] The self-medication hypothesis of substance use disorders: a reconsideration and recent applications

Contributors: Susana Spiegel

Co-contributors: Bliss Lavelle

Published: 10/25/2023

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Author & Reviewers

susana spiegel recovery writer and SEO expert

Susana is a recovery writer and advocate with over 8 years in addiction recovery. She is passionate about sharing accurate and helpful information about mental health, addiction, and recovery. She holds a Bachelor’s in Christian Studies from Grand Canyon University and has over 7 years of working in the addiction field. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges; he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues.

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