The Connection Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

By April 20, 2021May 28th, 2024Trauma
trauma and substance abuse

Trauma reaction is a normal and natural human response to experiences of genuine threat to life and safety. When we are exposed to severely distressing events, our minds, bodies, and emotions go into overdrive.

This can result in uncomfortable feelings. It’s not uncommon for trauma survivors to turn to substances, like alcohol or prescription drugs, in an attempt to numb those feelings. This is particularly dangerous, as substance abuse can turn into an addiction and cause serious health issues.

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at the connection between trauma and substance abuse as well as the benefits of starting your sustainable recovery.

Trauma and Substance Abuse

What starts out as an anxious survival response to the situation – such as going into a flight-or-fight mode during the event – naturally progresses into exploring the stages of grief. If these steps are navigated successfully to the point of finding a way to be at peace, a person can be considered as having moved past the trauma. If these recovery steps are not obtained, the trauma can be identified as evolving into a mental health disorder.

Here’s what you need to know about trauma and substance abuse.

Types of Trauma

The initial concept of treating trauma as a mental health condition began as a response to veterans returning from WWII. It was discovered that soldiers, who had no indication of mental health disorder prior to joining the war, were exhibiting debilitating symptoms upon their return home. Being exposed to the daily threat of their own death, and being exposed to the death of those around them, had severely traumatized them.

As the concept has developed, experts have recognized that there are more sources than the experience of war which can result in a traumatic response. Any situation which threatens our sense of safety – even if that perception is subjective – can contribute to changes in the brain which manifest as a maladaptive response to trauma. Some of the sources of trauma are obvious, and some are more hidden.

Childhood Trauma

Women who have experienced childhood trauma, including neglect or abandonment, are particularly vulnerable to substance abuse. Research found childhood trauma is responsible for around 30% of mental disorders and substance use disorders are among the most frequent mental disorders following traumatic events. Neglect and abandonment are two of the most common issues among women suffering from substance abuse. Childhood trauma may also involve witnessing domestic violence, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, the loss of a parent, and more.

Sexual Assualt

With many sexual assault cases, the victim experiences a genuine fear that she may be killed. Even if fear of death was not a direct concern, the experience of having your inalienable rights to your physical body taken away from you by force or coercion is an extremely violating and traumatic experience. Trauma response symptoms to sexual assault and rape include difficulty trusting others, fear of being in public, and feelings of guilt.

Physical Abuse

As with sexual assault, experiences of physical abuse can be considered life-threatening, or not. The amount of fear that is generated when someone is attempting to avoid the wrath and physical cruelty of an abuser can create the conditions of long-lasting trauma response. Trauma symptoms as a result of physical abuse include exaggerated startle response, avoidance of activities, and fear of speaking up for oneself.

Emotional and Psychological Abuse

Emotional and psychological abuse are some of the more hidden monsters in our society. They are not tangible or empirically observable, which makes it hard for our legal system to intervene in such cases with an appropriate response. While the immediate effects of this form of abuse may not be as apparent as those suffered in other forms of trauma, enduring sustained abuse of this type can alter our ability to cope and respond to situations without a maladaptive reaction.

Other Risks to Safety

As previously mentioned, experiences involving life-or-death scenarios are prime candidates for generating the conditions of persistent trauma. Narrowly missing death in the form of a car accident, crime scene, workplace hazard, or even a natural disaster can leave a person to deal with the stress, anxiety, and depression which are characteristic of trauma response. Those who encounter these types of scenarios on a daily basis – such as law enforcement, medical staff, and firefighters – need to be particularly mindful of their ability to cope with the repeated exposure to traumatic events.

Trauma and Substance Abuse

Within the field of mental health, there is a habit referred to as self-medication. This term describes the tendency of people to attempt to fix a mental health problem by using non-prescribed drugs or alcohol to numb the discomfort. While taking steps to address a problem on one’s own is a valued characteristic in our culture, attempting to treat trauma through self-medication rarely goes well. 

Research has shown that up to 75% of civilian trauma victims report having a substance abuse problem. Women who experience trauma are at a high risk of developing a dependence on alcohol. Adolescents who experience sexual abuse are nine times more likely to develop an addiction to hard drugs.

Co-occurring Disorders

When substance abuse is combined a with mental health disorder, the condition is known as a co-occurring disorder. Sometimes, the symptoms that are present during co-occurring disorders can be difficult to untangle.

Substance abuse and mental health disorders tend to interact in a way that both creates and compounds the situation. In spite of the difficulty of the task of unboxing the problem, experts have recognized that – in order for treatment to be effective – both the substance abuse and the underlying mental health condition need to be simultaneously addressed.

Removing the substance use without treating the trauma will only leave a door wide open for the temptation to resume the drug or alcohol use.

Effective Treatment for Co-occurring Trauma Disorders

When seeking treatment for substance abuse and trauma, it is important to employ the services of a team that has both substance abuse counselors and mental health experts available. While both of the areas of concern will be addressed, it is often the case that the components will be sectioned out. Addiction counselors are certified in their area of expertise, and often have their own experiences with substance abuse and recovery. Licensed mental health professionals are equipped with the education and knowledge for helping you successfully navigate the mental and emotional road to recovery from your trauma.

Substance abuse treatment can include a combination of medications, group support, and the development of coping skills to reduce your tendency to use substances as a response to the uncomfortable feelings associated with your trauma. The type of therapeutic support that you receive will depend on the orientation of the therapist. Some of the more effective therapeutic approaches to treating trauma include Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR.) Both of these specialty treatment modalities require specific training on behalf of the therapist.


Surviving a traumatic experience can have a profound impact on your life. If you’ve experienced trauma and find yourself turning to alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication to ease the feelings of pain or discomfort, you may be at risk of developing an addiction.

If you regularly turn to substances for comfort, consider exploring the benefits of joining a holistic healing program designed specifically for women. We offer Trauma Informed Therapy for women interested in healing their wounds and moving forward without drugs or alcohol.

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