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Trauma and Addiction: What’s the Connection?

8 minute read

Footprints to Recovery offers treatment for trauma and addiction that is rooted in compassion and dignity. Our clinical team can help you recover from co-occurring disorders and move on to a brighter future.

Your experiences in life shape who you are. If those experiences are traumatic, they can lead to a serious mental health condition known as trauma. Living with trauma is a challenge, but thankfully there are treatment programs available to help with the healing process.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is the term used to describe distressing or disturbing experiences or events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. These situations leave lasting emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical effects long after they’re over. Traumatic events can be single incidents or ongoing situations that cause harm to someone’s mental and emotional well-being.

Trauma is different for everyone. What one person finds traumatic may not be perceived the same way by someone else. Some examples of situations that cause trauma include:

  • Physical assault
  • Sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Witnessing violence
  • Bullying
  • Accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Medical problems
  • Unexpected loss
  • Military service

The list above features a few common examples. There are countless other situations and incidents in life that could cause trauma.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Trauma?

The symptoms of trauma can vary from person to person, depending on the nature of the traumatic experience and their individual coping mechanisms. Trauma can affect people emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Some common symptoms of trauma include:

  • Flashbacks and painful memories
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma
  • Feeling numb
  • Irritability or anger
  • Hyperarousal or feeling on guard
  • Negative feelings about yourself
  • Avoiding relationships
  • Disassociation
  • Unexplainable headaches or stomach pain
  • Overreacting to situations
  • Substance abuse
  • Poor concentration
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits

What Are the Different Types of Trauma?

When discussing trauma, the condition is divided into three distinct categories:

  1. Acute trauma
  2. Chronic trauma
  3. Complex trauma

Acute Trauma

Acute trauma refers to a sudden and intense event or experience that poses a threat. This type of trauma is often unexpected. You may feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with the situation. Acute trauma can result from various incidents, such as:

  • Accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Violent assaults
  • Witnessing a traumatic event

Chronic Trauma

Chronic trauma refers to repeated exposure to traumatic events or stressful situations. These occur over an extended period of time. Unlike acute trauma, which is characterized by a single intense incident, chronic trauma involves ongoing stressors that can be interpersonal, environmental, or systemic. Examples of prolonged situations that can cause chronic trauma include domestic violence and military service.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma is a psychological condition that results from experiencing prolonged and repetitive traumatic events. It’s also known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). It often occurs during childhood or early developmental stages of life. It is a more severe and chronic form of trauma compared to single-incident traumas or acute traumas. Complex trauma often occurs in interpersonal relationships, where you are subjected to ongoing abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

Trauma and the Brain

Trauma can have a significant impact on the brain. It can affect the brain’s structure, function, and neurochemical balance. When you experience a traumatic event, your brain responds in order to cope. In cases of severe or prolonged trauma, these responses can lead to changes in the brain.

Trauma can affect the following parts of the brain:

Amygdala: The amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions. These include fear and threat detection. During traumatic experiences, the amygdala becomes hyperactive, leading to heightened emotional responses and being especially aware of potential dangers. This can mean you get triggered by reminders of the trauma.

Hippocampus: The hippocampus plays a crucial role in forming memories and consolidating them. Trauma impairs the hippocampus, leading to difficulties in processing and integrating memories of the traumatic event. This can result in fragmented or intrusive memories, contributing to symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares.

Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. Trauma can affect the prefrontal cortex’s function, leading to difficulties in managing emotions and making sound judgments. This can contribute to impulsive behaviors and emotional dysregulation.

Neurochemical Imbalance: Trauma can disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine. These are crucial for mood regulation and pleasure, and an imbalance can contribute to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Effects of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can have long-lasting effects on your development, emotional well-being, and physical health. Adverse childhood experiences such as child abuse, neglect, and parental loss can lead to a range of trauma symptoms in adulthood. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2 out of 3 children experience a traumatic incident by the time they reach 16 years old.

Childhood trauma has been linked to many adverse effects including:

  • Higher rates of substance abuse
  • Increased likelihood of engaging in risky behavior
  • Poor performance in school
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships as an adult

The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

There is ample evidence that mental health disorders like trauma play a role in developing and continuing substance abuse. In turn, substance abuse can make the symptoms of trauma more severe. This cycle of co-occurring disorders can be a nightmare to escape from.

The cycle begins when someone experiences a form of abuse or trauma. After experiencing this kind of stressor, they may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their emotions and negative thoughts. Substance abuse serves as a temporary escape from their problems, but it creates a new issue in the process.

Can Trauma Cause Addiction?

Trauma can be a significant factor in developing a substance use disorder. When someone experiences trauma, it can have a lasting impact on their emotional health. Trauma can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and emotional pain. Some trauma survivors may attempt to reduce these feelings through substance use to self-medicate or escape distressing emotions.

It is important to note that trauma does not necessarily cause addiction. There are cases where someone experiences trauma and does not develop a substance use disorder as a result. The reverse is also true. While addiction can make symptoms of trauma worse, those who abuse substances may not necessarily have experienced trauma in their lives.

While it’s not fully accurate to say that addiction causes trauma or trauma causes addiction, the relationship between the two cannot be ignored. Both are complex mental and behavioral health issues that can make each other worse if left untreated. Finding reliable mental health and substance abuse treatment is the best course of action if you’re in this situation.

How Are Addiction and Trauma Treated?

Addiction and trauma are complex issues that often intertwine. These co-occurring disorders can impact your mental and physical well-being. Treatment for them involves a comprehensive and holistic approach that addresses both your addiction and your underlying trauma. This approach is called dual diagnosis treatment.

Scheduling a consultation with an addiction treatment center is the best way to get started with dual diagnosis treatment. Clinical professionals like those at Footprints to Recovery will conduct an initial evaluation to learn more about you. The goal is to find the source of your trauma and take the necessary steps to heal so you no longer turn to drugs or alcohol. Your therapist will assess things like:

  • Medical history
  • History of trauma
  • Your symptoms
  • Your lifestyle

Following your assessment, your therapist will create an individualized recovery plan aimed at treating your co-occurring disorders. Treating co-occurring disorders involves behavioral therapy techniques integrated with holistic approaches overseen by clinical professionals.

Trauma and addiction treatment programs at Footprints to Recovery include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy  is an evidence-based approach to treating trauma and its symptoms. CBT for trauma focuses on helping you understand the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You learn how these things are influenced by your traumatic experience(s). The goal is to identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with the trauma to promote healing and recovery.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy is another therapeutic approach that can be beneficial for trauma. It was first developed to treat borderline personality disorder but has been adapted for other mental health conditions, including trauma.

DBT is a comprehensive treatment approach that combines cognitive behavioral techniques with elements of mindfulness and acceptance. It aims to help you build skills to manage your emotions, cope with distress, improve your relationships, and develop a sense of acceptance and balance in your life.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is specialized psychotherapy that has been extensively used to treat trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s and has gained widespread recognition as an effective treatment for trauma-related issues.

During treatment, your therapist will have you identify specific traumas while using bilateral stimulation to desensitize the memory. Bilateral stimulation includes side-to-side eye movements, hand tapping, or auditory cues. This helps refocus your brain while recalling trauma to help reduce feelings of distress or discomfort.

Trauma and Addiction Treatment at Footprints to Recovery

Finding professional treatment for trauma and addiction is crucial for recovery. Substance use disorders and mental health issues like trauma create a cycle of symptoms that can be difficult to break free from. Footprints to Recovery offers mental health and drug addiction treatment programs that heal both at the same time. This allows you to overcome both barriers and move on to a brighter future.

Our treatment programs are evidence-based and include the best holistic practices for recovery. The unique levels of care at Footprints to Recovery allow our team of clinicians to create an individualized treatment plan suited to your needs.

The levels of care for trauma and addiction at Footprints to Recovery include:

  • Medical detox: Detox is a necessary step in the recovery process for substance use disorders. It ensures all the substances are out of your body before the rehabilitation process begins. Footprints to Recovery has trained and experienced clinical staff who oversee detox treatment programs. Our goal is to help make you as comfortable as possible during withdrawal so you can get through it with confidence.
  • Inpatient treatment: Residential treatment is a level of care that offers around-the-clock support from our clinical team. You live full-time at our rehab center and attend treatment for both addiction and mental health disorders. Our programs combine evidence-based behavioral therapies with the best holistic practices for an integrated approach to treatment.
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP): A PHP offers more flexibility because you don’t spend 24 hours a day at our treatment center. Instead, you meet for treatment five days a week for around six hours each time. The process builds on the teachings of inpatient care to help prepare you for the transition back to normal life.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP): An IOP is even less intensive than PHP and affords even more time for obligations outside of recovery, such as family, work, or school. You attend treatment between 9 and 15 hours per week. The goal is to prepare you for life outside of recovery.
  • Outpatient rehab: Outpatient treatment is the least-intense level of care for mental illness and addiction. It focuses on teaching you to use the skills and coping mechanisms learned in recovery. Those skills can be applied to situations in life where mental health issues or substance abuse are problems. This can help sustain long-term recovery.

Are you ready to leave trauma and addiction in the past? Footprints to Recovery is ready to help. Our clinical team is skilled and experienced in treating substance abuse and trauma of all kinds. Our trauma and addiction recovery programs are safe and effective. Contact the Footprints to Recovery admissions team today for insurance verification. We can also answer any questions you have about our treatments. Don’t wait to get help.


Evan Gove
Jenna Richer
Author Evan Gove
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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