Understanding the Connection Between Trauma & Substance Abuse — And What to Do About It

Trauma & Addiction Connection

When a person experiences an event on a visceral level, it leaves a lasting impact. Trauma survivors know this reality all too well. Domestic violence, childhood abuse, war, natural disasters, and car wrecks are all traumatic episodes that can fundamentally change the way a person manages the world around them. Understanding how trauma affects individuals and its impact on substance abuse is crucial to healing and recovery. 


Trauma & Substance Abuse: A Complex Web


Defined as a psychological reaction to a disturbing or distressing event, trauma is characterized by intense feelings of fear, stress, and helplessness. Symptoms of trauma can manifest in a variety of ways including, PTSD, hypervigilance, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks. Trauma survivors often have a high rate of substance abuse and addiction issues. The interplay between trauma and substance abuse is multifaceted and is believed to be based upon the following: 

  • Coping Mechanism: Traumatic events can create a rift in the psyche of those who’ve been through them. They may not be able to cope with the reality of what happened and turn to drugs and alcohol as a survival technique. They may also be using to cope with emotional pain, anxiety, or to push away the memories of the event. While the relief comes, it is temporary and can lead to addiction. 

  • Self-Medicating: Unable to process or deal with the mental health issues that manifest as a result of trauma, some survivors will use substances to self-medicate. Oftentimes, it isn’t even a conscious decision but more of a cause and effect response. Trauma leads to anxiety. Using drugs and alcohol relieves that anxiety. Unfortunately as this cycle continues, the source of pain that is being medicated will return at a higher level and require greater amounts of drugs and alcohol to manage. This behavior soon spirals into dependency and full blown addiction. 

  • Re-Traumatization: Using drugs and alcohol can place an individual in a position to be re-traumatized. Substance abuse often leads people to engage in risky behaviors where they are putting themselves into positions where they are vulnerable to further traumatic events. For example, someone struggling with the trauma of experiencing a natural disaster drives drunk, gets into a horrible car wreck and kills their best friend. Now they are dealing with trauma on top of trauma. This experience only exacerbates the substance abuse leading to the likelihood of experiencing another traumatic event. 

  • Brain Chemistry: Trauma can fundamentally alter the brain’s thinking and reward systems. Changes in brain chemistry and the ability to regulate emotions and thoughts can make substances very appealing. Those with altered thinking can become incredibly susceptible to addiction. 

Treating Trauma & Addiction


Dealing with the complexities of trauma and substance abuse? Here are some strategies that can help: 

  • Professional Help: Working with behavioral health professionals who are experienced in trauma and addiction is the first step. Overcoming both of these issues is nearly impossible to do on your own. Trauma-informed treatment programs specialize in treating trauma and addiction together instead of separately. Addiction is seen as a symptom of trauma instead of independent from it. Learning healthy coping mechanisms, behavior modification, and how to handle trauma triggers is essential to recovery. 

  • Support Groups: Communities of trauma survivors and people in recovery provide a sense of support and understanding. Trauma can make people feel alone, isolated, and misunderstood. Speaking their experiences out loud takes away some of its power and empowers the individuals to regain control of their life. 

  • Medication: If necessary, some trauma survivors may need medication, at least temporarily, to help with anxiety, depressions, sleep disturbances, etc. There is nothing wrong with taking medication to manage trauma symptoms. Medication is often used in conjunction with therapy. 

  • Holistic Approach: While working on the psychological side of trauma, it is important to also balance the physical and social side of recovery. Proper nutrition, regular exercise, and a strong support system are crucial to health and healing. 

  • Self-Care: Treating trauma and addiction can be heavy, intensive work. Taking time for personal activities that you enjoy is important. Bring some light and levity into your world by going out for a day of pampering, a mental health day, or getting out in nature with friends. Anything that you enjoy and will help you step away momentarily from the severity of the situation. 


Trauma and substance abuse is not something that is healed overnight. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to get better. It also takes a lot of help from certified professionals. During this process, go easy on yourself and give yourself time and space to heal. 

Are you struggling with the effects of trauma and substance abuse? Country Road Recovery has experience treating both in their trauma-informed continuum. Call today and explore your options.