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Understanding the Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction

Evidence points to a strong correlation between trauma and addiction. Our life experiences shape who we are as individuals and affect our view of the world — and ourselves. Traumatic experiences can have a lifelong impact on how we function as adults.

Trauma can be recent, or it can be deeply buried within us, as a part of our trauma history that we would prefer to forget. Sometimes our attempt to forget past trauma and painful events prompts substance use, which can lead to a substance use disorder, or an addiction.

Childhood trauma is common and comes with some shocking statistics. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study on adolescents showed that 61 percent of people in the study suffered at least one traumatic adverse childhood experience. This could include childhood abuse or other types of childhood trauma.

Even more shocking is that 25 percent of people met the criteria of reporting three or more traumatic experiences. Perhaps you or someone you love has suffered trauma, and you never made the correlation to your addiction.

Keep reading to learn more about trauma, how it impacts substance abuse, and where to get help for your addiction.

How Can Trauma Lead to Addiction?

Trauma can cause us to suppress emotions, have a breakdown in trust for others, and without the proper outlets or therapy, can lead to mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, providing a pathway to addiction.

Trauma can contribute to learned behavior about how to cope with difficult situations. Left untreated and without the proper health care, trauma can be a gateway to drug use or an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Unfortunately, turning to close family or friends for support isn’t always an option for everyone. If you have a close circle of support, you may feel that the people closest to you don’t understand.

Overcoming addiction due to trauma requires a strong support system, and finding a sobriety community is key to getting sober and not relapsing.

Examples of Trauma That Can Lead to Addiction

When we experience something unpleasant, we often remember it. In fact, traumatic experiences can stand out in our minds for decades. We hold on to such memories because it had a negative impact.

Negative events such as a snarky exchange with a friend or family member or a fender bender that scared us are a normal part of the ups and downs of life. Traumatic experiences are different. They cause a fight or flight response and increase our heart rate; traumatic events can put us in overload. Traumatic memories can even cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Some people have experienced a series of traumatic events, which can numb them to other types of trauma or life events as part of a defense mechanism. Check out the list below for a self-check to see if you’ve been impacted by trauma and perhaps not even realized how much it’s affected you.

Losing Someone

Losing a family member or loved one can be a traumatic event. Although loss is part of life, loss and the painful grief that comes with it can hit you in waves, impacting other areas of your life, which can affect your overall well-being.

For some, the loss of a loved one can create a feeling of isolation and loneliness that can lead to or contribute to a substance use disorder. It’s important to remember that isolation is the enemy of sobriety — find a community that understands.

Suffering From a Serious Injury or Illness

Serious injury or illness can create physical and mental pain and wreak havoc on our everyday lives. Drug abuse, such as opioids, can result from self-medicating to mitigate the body’s stress response.

Dealing with an illness or getting a life-altering diagnosis can be traumatic and can shake our world as we know it.

Physical and Emotional Abuse

Abuse can be verbal, without anyone ever putting a hand on you, and it can affect our self-esteem and make us feel unworthy. Physical abuse, such as domestic violence, can be equally traumatic and can create a domino effect: a lack of trust in others, mental health issues and other health problems that can lead to substance abuse.

Sexual Abuse

Did you know adolescents who have experienced physical and sexual abuse were twice as likely to use drugs? Similar connections were made when it came to alcohol.

This kind of trauma requires counseling, as it puts people at high risk for addictive behaviors as a way of blocking out trauma history. Seeking out substance abuse providers and mental health services is important for recovery and healing.

Traumatic Unforeseen Life Events

Sometimes, events happen that we can never unsee. This can be a terrible car accident, a natural disaster with people suffering, or something visually traumatic that we just can’t get out of our minds.

As a coping mechanism and a way to dull the senses, some turn to substance use as a way to self-medicate and forget what happened.

Childhood Trauma

The effects of childhood trauma can’t be understated. Adverse childhood experiences stay with us forever, and the negative impact can be long-lasting.

Childhood trauma is more common than most realize, with two-thirds of children reporting a childhood trauma event before they turn 16. Childhood trauma can stem from several events, such as maltreatment of a child or various forms of child abuse, such as parental neglect, physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or witnessing a violent situation.

Did Trauma Lead You to a Path of Substance Abuse?

If you’ve experienced one or more traumatic events and found yourself abusing substances, know that you’re not alone. Consider joining a sobriety community, such as Sober Sidekick - a free app you can access 24/7!

Also, be sure to exercise self-care as part of your healing process. Read on to learn more about how trauma can trigger substance use disorders.

Is Trauma Your Trigger?

If you reflect on times when you’ve had a binge night of drinking or other substance abuse, can you think of anything that triggered your behavior? Emotions are powerful, and if you have a trauma history, there may be triggers you aren’t aware of.

For example, if you were a victim of physical or mental abuse from a parent or a partner, you may be sensitive to controlling behavior or language that makes you feel victimized. The wrong set of circumstances, or words from someone, may trigger you and the stress response. This can set off an event such as substance abuse or relapse.

Consider journaling your emotions to get in touch with their link to potential substance abuse problems, or contact a therapist to understand yourself better and receive trauma-informed care.

Know the Signs of Trauma

Trauma can cause side effects that vary for each individual. We are all complex, unique people who react to experiences differently. Watching for signs of trauma in yourself or someone you love may help to explain the root cause of substance abuse issues.

Symptoms of trauma can include the following:

  • Unexplainable crying

  • Lack of self-worth and confidence

  • Nightmares

  • Trouble maintaining relationships

  • Repeatedly gravitating to toxic romantic partners

  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Self-harm behaviors

  • Irritability and confusion

  • Explosive bursts of unexplained anger

If you notice any of the above symptoms with yourself or someone else, consider talking with someone you trust, such as a family member, friend, or partner. Many people have walked in your shoes, and you are not alone.

If you’ve developed an addiction as a result of trauma, you can get help by joining a supportive online sobriety community.

Getting Help

If you’ve decided to get sober, there are many paths you can take in addiction recovery. Everyone’s journey is different. Addiction treatment centers are an option, with inpatient and outpatient programs. If your substance abuse is severe, a structured substance abuse treatment center may be what you need.

No matter which avenue you take to get sober, you can make a difference in your life today by taking the first step and joining a sobriety community that will be rooting for you from day one. Sobrer Sidekick is a free app that offers around-the-clock support, inspirational motivational messages sent to you, additional resources, and more. Download the app today!


Trauma and addiction are closely linked, and traumatic events as an adult or childhood trauma can prompt unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse. Watch for signs of trauma in yourself and others and know your potential triggers from trauma that may be causing you to abuse substances or potentially tempting you to relapse.

What are you waiting for? Join the sober community of over 150,000 people today and get sober — download Sober Sidekick.


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