The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

Trauma can change your life forever. Whether it be an event during childhood, your teenage years, or in your adult life, trauma has the ability to change your outlook on life and the world. This is why it is not uncommon for many individuals who have gone through a traumatic experience to develop a drug or alcohol addiction. This is due to multiple factors, primarily because drugs and alcohol may be used to numb the effects a traumatic event has on a person. If you are already at risk of addiction due to genetic or other factors, experiencing trauma can increase this risk even more. Understanding the connections between trauma and addiction can help better educate those dealing with both issues. This understanding can also help mental health professionals treat clients and develop new ways of thinking about addiction and trauma. 

Defining Trauma and Addiction


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, trauma can be defined as “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” There are several types of trauma, including physical assault, sexual assault, bullying, terminal illness, death, severe accidents, neglect, domestic violence, natural disaster, emotional abuse, and verbal abuse. However, trauma is an individual experience. This means that anything that makes you feel unsafe and like your life is being threatened can also be a traumatic event. 

Signs of trauma include:

  • Low confidence
  • Consistent feelings of fear or anxiety
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Mood swings
  • Avoiding triggers
  • Problems in social, romantic, and professional relationships
  • Constant feelings of irritability
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Mental disorders
  • Reliving the event


Addiction is a chronic disease that develops over time, causing a person to be severely dependent on a substance or behavior. You can typically tell when someone has crossed the line from abuse to addiction when they begin choosing the substance or behavior over critical priorities and responsibilities in their life. Addiction can lead to consequences such as job loss, homelessness, cutting off ties with family and friends, isolation, financial problems, permanent health problems, and more. Addiction causes vary, but it is not uncommon for an addict to have a co-occurring mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. 

Symptoms of addiction:

  • Inability to stop using the substance even when the person wants to
  • A lack of self-control
  • Intense cravings for the substance
  • Living in denial of how the addiction is affecting their life
  • Lack of emotions or extreme mood swing

How Trauma Can Lead to Addiction

Trauma has the power to change the structure of your brain. It can rewire it to process situations and behaviors differently, often leading to cognitive and behavioral problems. Those who have experienced trauma often have high-stress levels, causing a rise in hormones such as cortisol. These high levels are what rewire that brain and drive abnormal development. The chemicals in a person’s brain can cause them to relive the traumatic event constantly, causing them to want to escape however they can. It also can hinder a person’s ability to cope with the reality of the event and what actually happened to them. 

This is when individuals often begin using drugs or alcohol to numb the effects of trauma, whether it be the feelings it causes or the memories they are continually reliving. However, long-term substance abuse can eventually turn into an addiction. This chronic disease rewires the brain to crave more of the substance used. This is why it is so easy for trauma and addiction to co-exist. The individual may continually use drugs or alcohol to try to escape the memories of the trauma. Still, the consequences of long-term substance abuse can worsen the symptoms of trauma.  

Treating the Dual Diagnosis

When treating trauma and addiction, each treatment plan is most often individualized depending on the client’s needs and the severity of the trauma and addiction. The best way to treat a client with a dual diagnosis of trauma and addiction is to develop a plan that includes ways to heal both at the same time. Frequently, those who are going to treatment for both trauma and addiction, they will have a longer length of stay due to the complexities involved in the trauma healing process. 

Oftentimes, the underlying causes of addiction can be traumatic experiences, therefore it is vital for treating addiction to learn the root causes of the addiction and help to develop the skills to heal from them. Psychotherapy and medication are often used to help a person dealing with symptoms of trauma. Therapists work with the person to understand the underlying causes of their addiction and develop healthy coping strategies to deal with difficult emotions and potential triggers in the future. Giving clients the best chance at recovery is to continue treatment consistently in a sober environment where they feel safe and comfortable. 


At Choice House, we have seen our share of clients that are struggling with trauma and addiction. Unfortunately, trauma can often play a part in addiction development because individuals may use drugs or alcohol to hide from or numb the effects of the trauma. Both trauma and addiction can alter the function and development of the brain by creating chemical imbalances. This is why it is often common for them to be diagnosed together. However, the consequences of addiction can make the traumatic memories and feelings worse. Treatment should include a plan that treats both the diagnoses, as only treating one at a time could potentially lead to a higher risk of relapse later on. Each program should be tailored to the individual and consistently implemented to offer the best chance at long-term recovery. For more information on the connection between trauma and addiction, contact Choice House today at (720) 577-4422.

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