Trauma and Addiction

Ioana Cozma
Morgan Blair
Written by Ioana Cozma on 14 November 2023
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 29 November 2023

Current scientific literature showcases a strong correlation between trauma and addiction. This guide explains what trauma is, how traumatic events correlate with distinct types of addiction and effective available treatment options.

Trauma and Addiction

What is trauma?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event. APA offers examples of such events, including sexual abuse, environmental disasters, and accidents. The first emotions that occur are said to be shock and denial, though physical symptoms double the long-term panoply of emotions.

To understand what trauma is, it is important to understand the co-occurring disorders and physical symptoms it might elicit.

Physical symptoms

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Intense tiredness
  • Heightened sensitivity to sudden stimuli
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Disturbing dreams
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Constant restlessness
  • Physical discomfort and soreness
  • Stiff muscles

Behavioral and emotional symptoms

  • Inability to accept reality
  • Irritability
  • Emotional fluctuations
  • Disorientation
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Feelings of self-blame
  • Holding oneself responsible
  • Struggling to come to terms with the event
  • Pulling away from others
  • Seeking solitude
  • Sensations of despair
  • Sensing a detachment or emotional flatness

Common types of trauma

Another way to understand trauma is by reviewing the different types of traumatic events that may inflict the above-mentioned symptoms.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse stems from physical aggression, encompassing instances where an individual is attacked, ambushed, or repeatedly struck. Physical abuse might lead to trauma, whether the aggression originates from a family member, acquaintance, or an unknown individual.

Sexual abuse

Sexual violence involves actions like rape or molestation. Unfortunately, sexual abuse is one of the most common traumatic events. Sexual abuse may be singular or repeated. Some people may face sexual abuse from family members or partners.

Household violence

Household violence emerges when an individual faces aggression from someone within their household, such as a partner or parent. Household violence may lead to physical and emotional trauma.

Psychological abuse

Psychological trauma stems from psychological maltreatment. This term refers to attempts by one person to dominate another, and it is believed to have the most negative developmental consequences in children.

Adults may also be victims of the psychological abuse practiced by family members. Covert narcissists, for example, may use emotional tactics like belittling, shaming, blaming, or manipulating other's emotions.

Parental neglect

Parental neglect typically refers to under-providing the necessary resources to one’s children, creating a tense, unfulfilling environment. These resources may be material or emotional, ranging from quality food, living, educational resources, and love. Parental neglect may be accompanied by physical and sexual abuse.


Bullying is a traumatic event mainly experienced in childhood. If left unaddressed, this type of trauma may linger into adulthood, regardless of the perceived severity of the bullying acts.

Natural catastrophes

Natural catastrophes can displace individuals from their homes, separate them from loved ones, or disrupt their usual life patterns. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following such events should not be ignored.


Accidents range from car crashes, workplace accidents, or other unexpected events with severe negative consequences. Accidental harm may elicit PTSD in the people involved and their loved ones, even if they weren't directly involved. Symptoms of PTSD may include intense and recurring memories of the incident.

Medical trauma

Enduring a prolonged or chronic disease may also be a source of trauma. The ordeal and the symptoms related to the illness may trigger distressing recollections or emotions long after the event.

Each person’s response to trauma is unique. Therefore, each person’s tendency toward developing an addiction after a traumatic event may vary. This section explains how trauma generates addiction and how distinct traumatic events may correlate with specific addictions.

The effects of trauma on addiction

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activates to handle threats effectively and thus regulates the body’s stress response. When it recognizes danger, the HPA axis stimulates the release of stress hormones like adrenaline.

Adrenaline leads to heightened alertness, increased blood pressure, faster heart rate, and quicker breathing. Thus, the brain prioritizes immediate reactions over slower processes, such as those managed by the prefrontal cortex that govern executive functions and self-control.

However, traumatic events maintain the HPA axis in constant arousal. This continuous activation leads to persistent alertness, anxiety, and hypervigilance. The long-term effects include:

  • Compromised immune system
  • Impaired cognitive development in children
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Increased susceptibility to neurodegenerative disorders
  • Attachment difficulties
  • Depressive feelings

Individuals with trauma may gravitate toward addictive behaviors or substances to cope with its effects, such as persistent alertness or emotional detachment.

For those with heightened stress responses, substances or addictive behaviors may temporarily relieve chronic anxiety and hyperarousal. For instance, substances like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and cannabis may produce calming effects.

Conversely, some individuals with PTSD might resort to substances or behaviors that provide a stimulating effect to counter co-occurring dissociative disorders such as numbness and detachment. Drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, and nicotine, or even actions like gaming, can produce feelings of alertness and vitality.

What type of addiction can correlate to trauma?

Below, we explore how traumatic events influence addiction differently.

Childhood trauma

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center (SAMHSA) indicates that challenging experiences during childhood can pave the way for an earlier introduction to alcohol, increased chances of mental health problems, tobacco use, prescription medication intake, and the likelihood of developing substance dependency.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following traumatic events may lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism and a way to alleviate physical symptoms. The relationship is possibly bidirectional; those grappling with substance issues are more prone to face traumatic events and vice-versa.

Physical abuse and chronic illness

Physical abuse and chronic illness are typically tied to considerable pain. Doctors prescribe pain relievers such as opioids for pain management.

If the level of physical distress is acute, individuals might consume amounts exceeding the recommended dose for relief. This excessive intake, however, increases addiction risks. Many see this pattern as a significant contributor to the opioid crisis in the U.S.

Emotional abuse

The impacts of emotional trauma, which can stem from experiences like bullying or emotional maltreatment, might not be immediately evident. Such experiences may, over time, lead to mental health challenges like depression or anxiety.

Individuals with a history of emotional trauma are often more susceptible to addiction, resorting to substances to dull emotional pain, manage potential PTSD symptoms, or seek a temporary escape.

Treatment for trauma and addiction

Trauma and addiction both have long-term devastating effects, which is why they should be addressed in a professional setting. Below is a list of the most common treatments.


Detoxification entails clearing one’s body of harmful substances. Medical professionals should oversee this process since the withdrawal symptoms may be intense. Sometimes, life-threatening symptoms such as seizures or escalated heart rate may arise.

To manage and alleviate these symptoms, physicians may gradually reduce the dosage of the substance over a set period. If someone is battling addiction, they should consult a rehabilitation center to ensure a secure and professionally supervised detox experience.

Dual diagnosis treatment

This approach addresses the ensuing addiction and co-occurring disorders, such as mental health problems and other trauma symptoms. The method recognizes that addiction treatment is more effective when addressing the underlying causes that provoked that addiction.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Both addiction and trauma entail negative behavior, overwhelming emotions, and sometimes uncontrollable stress responses. CBT is a type of psychological therapy that teaches patients specific behavioral tools to address these responses and their detrimental coping mechanisms.

Related: Managing Triggers: Self-control for a fulfilling life

EMDR therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique designed specifically to reduce the distress tied to traumatic memories.

During an EMDR session, patients are guided to briefly recall traumatic events. They simultaneously focus on external stimuli, such as hand-tapping or musical cues.

EMDR aims to foster these new neurological associations between the traumatic event and innocuous stimuli, thus reducing the emotional pain linked to trauma.

Residential treatment

Residential or inpatient treatment may be needed if symptoms are too severe to manage outpatient. Residential treatment provides a space where patients can reside during their recovery journey. These centers often prioritize managing withdrawal symptoms and addressing the underlying trauma. As a result, they achieve better results in terms of sobriety.

Support groups

Support groups provide a safe space for individuals grappling with trauma and addiction to share experiences and feelings. These groups facilitate a sense of community and mutual encouragement and reduce feelings of isolation.

Members learn effective coping strategies and gain insights from others’ recovery journeys. Additionally, observing peers who overcame similar challenges successfully may inspire hope and motivation.


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Activity History - Last updated: 29 November 2023, Published date:


Morgan Blair


Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 13 November 2023 and last checked on 29 November 2023

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair


Morgan Blair


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