Addressing Trauma in Addiction Recovery

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and fact-checked by an addiction expert.
Clinically Reviewed By: Karen Williams, LPC
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and fact-checked by an addiction expert.

Substance abuse and trauma are closely intertwined, with trauma often leading to substance use as a means of self-medication.

 Substance abuse has been shown to both exacerbate the effects of trauma and create new traumas of its own.

In this resource, I dive into the importance of addressing trauma in recovery.

Searching for help with drug and/or alcohol addiction? Call us now at (888) 201-4610.


The devastation that trauma causes

Sometimes people find themselves in scary situations they’ll never forget, though they wish they could. 

These situations might be catastrophes like warfare, natural disasters, or life-changing events like witnessing violence or experiencing abuse. Regardless of their severity, they have a lasting effect on your mind, more so than you might realize.

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience where you might have felt like you had no control or couldn’t process what was happening.

You were in a situation where you had to be on guard constantly. Safety wasn’t a reality. This short or long-term experience still sits with you today. You might find yourself coping in unhealthy ways.

There is considerable overlap between those who have experienced trauma and those who use substances.

When you address your substance use, it might also mean addressing the trauma underneath that could be causing you to act in a destructive way to yourself and the people around you.

Addiction often follows a history of trauma.

Addiction and a history of trauma strongly correlate, with trauma often being a catalyst for addiction. Many people who suffer from addiction have experienced some form of trauma in their past, whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, the death of a loved one, or a traumatic event. People who have experienced trauma may turn to drugs or alcohol to mask their feelings of pain and sadness. They may also use substances to escape reality and dull the pain of their trauma. Unfortunately, this can quickly become an addiction as the person begins to rely on substances to cope with their trauma.

People with a history of trauma also have an increased risk of developing addictions. Trauma can disrupt a person’s brain chemistry, making them more susceptible to addiction. Trauma can also lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, contributing to addiction. Combining these two factors can lead to a cycle of addiction that is difficult to break.

Addiction is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Many people find themselves struggling to stay sober and don’t know why. It doesn’t matter what they do; they always return to their vices.

They know their addiction’s impact on their bodies, families, and finances, but nothing seems to stick. The truth is, there’s more than likely something deeper going on.

According to a national epidemiologic study, 46.4% of people with lifetime PTSD also had Substance Use Disorder (SUD). The same study found that 51.9% of men with lifetime PTSD also had SUD.

Men were also 2.06 and 2.97 times more likely to meet alcohol abuse or dependence criteria than men without PTSD. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study also conducted a study in the 1980s, which found that 74% of Vietnam Veterans with PTSD had SUD.

You Might Be Self-Medicating to Deal with Trauma

Given the high percentages, it’s clear that addiction and trauma are tightly intertwined. Trauma survivors might use substances as a form of self-medication, relieving the post-traumatic symptoms and helping them cope.

You might use substances to avoid feeling numb or anxious or drown out negative mood changes like irritability and rage. You might have had flashbacks and nightmares about a terrifying event.

Maybe you avoid situations that completely remind you of this challenging time because it’s too painful to relive.

If this sounds like you, you might have trauma that you need to process. Unresolved trauma can disrupt your life and relationships, and if you find yourself using substances to cope, chances are it already has.

Talking with a professional is a significant first step to unraveling the difficult feelings surrounding your trauma. It might seem scary to uncover this trauma and speak to another person about what has happened, but there are plenty of benefits.

Addressing What’s Lying Underneath

Psychological therapy, also known as “talk therapy,” is a safe space to explore feelings and problems in a confidential setting. Here, you can freely express your thoughts and feelings in a productive place.

You are talking about your feelings, and why you feel them can help you understand your responses.

In these sessions, you can discuss issues or thoughts that cause discomfort, manage your reactions to things out of your control, and find healthier ways to seek relief other than using drugs or alcohol.

Finding healthy ways to reduce the severity of PTSD symptoms doesn’t require you to process the details of a traumatic experience.

It’s recommended not to try processing a traumatic event until you are ready and comfortable doing so. A clinical professional helping you process trauma should be specifically trained to do so; otherwise, you could be at risk of being re-traumatized.

Need help for addiction?
We will meet you with compassion and care.

Call to learn about our addiction treatment programs. We will give you life-saving resources.

Trauma Can’t Be Ignored in Recovery

Since the connection between substance use and trauma is so common, places of recovery often treat clients as if they have been exposed to trauma, even if they don’t disclose it. 

This assumption of past trauma exists in treatment because ignoring trauma in substance use treatment can retraumatize clients. 

Ignoring the potential root of the problem reinforces secrecy that often surrounds the trauma, the expectation of “just not talking about it.” 

Not talking about trauma causes the treatment to be less effective and can contribute to relapse and dropping out of treatment. 

Trauma in treatment is seen as a root cause, while substance use is only a symptom. Treating the two as unrelated issues leads to misunderstanding of the client. 

Even if you choose not to disclose your trauma, there are still benefits to learning healthy coping skills when symptoms become too much. 

Life can bring unexpected and terrifying events. Whether it’s exposure to violence or experiencing abuse, your mind can suffer the consequences even after you’ve found safety. 

Those who’ve dealt with traumatic circumstances can eventually develop a disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD.

 Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, feeling on edge, avoiding things that remind you of specific memories, feeling like nowhere is safe, and even having difficulties with everyday aspects like holding down a job and being able to relax.

 Cornerstone Healing Center of Scottsdale offers individual therapy for several issues such as PTSD, addiction, codependency, anxiety, and depression.

 Counseling and therapy can help when you are unable to see a way out of the suffering. 

Giving yourself a space to heal can have lasting benefits for years to come. If you’d like to know more about individual addiction rehab therapy, you can reach us at (800) 643-2108.

Need help for addiction? We will meet you with compassion and care.

Call to learn about our programs. Even if we can't help you, we will give you life-saving resources.
More addiction and recovery resources:
Estil Wallace

Estil Wallace

Estil has worked in the recovery field for 12 years. Estil has over 14 years of experience with inside/outside sales, management, networking and digital marketing. He believes that anyone can heal that has the willingness to change.

Clinical Reviewer: Karen Williams, LPC

Clinical Reviewer: Karen Williams, LPC

Karen is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 15 years experience. She not only specializes in addiction, but is in recovery as well. Karen is our clinical director.

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