Addiction and Trauma

Much has been written about addiction and trauma, but they are usually considered separate problems when they are deeply connected.


This article will attempt to tackle the connection between addiction and trauma.


What is Trauma?




Trauma is a common experience in humanity. Someone dies, you are in a car accident or a natural disaster, or any event over which you have no control causes this trauma reaction.


Trauma is our minds’ response when we experience a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms our ability to cope. This traumatic distress causes feelings of helplessness and diminishes our sense of self and control over our emotions.


Trauma and its effects are felt worldwide and do not discriminate. A survey by the World Mental Health Organization found that 1/3 of the more than 125,000 people surveyed in 26 countries said they had experienced trauma. The percentage rose to 70% when the group became limited to those experiencing core disorders as described in the DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition.)


While these stats are impressive, the percentage of people who experience trauma is probably much higher.


Some people with unaddressed or untreated childhood trauma often suffer from other mental health concerns, including complex post-traumatic stress disorder

and dissociative identity disorder.


What is Addiction?

Some people consider addiction as being addicted to alcohol or drugs. However, it is much more insidious than that. Addiction is a neuropsychological symptom where the person has intense urges to engage in behaviors that provide immediate sensory rewards.


Addiction doesn’t only happen to some people in one category as it is universal and can affect anyone of any demographic group. Because addiction is a brain syndrome, no one is safe. If the correct substance or circumstance happens to you, you will become addicted and exhibit addictive behavior.


Being addicted to something isn’t a weakness or caused by a sinful lifestyle. Those are myths that must be dispelled.


Research has shown that the human brain is hardwired for addiction, given the correct stimulation of its reward center. The neurotransmitter dopamine is a feel-good substance in our brain responsible for repeating pleasing and necessary functions such as procreation.


The brain is also affected in other ways, such as the prefrontal cortex, the center of the brain’s highest functions, by dopamine stimulated by the substance or behavior.


There are a variety of causes and risk factors that aid in the development of addiction, including:


  • A family history of addiction.
  • Easy access to substances early in life.
  • Starting the use of substances when a child.
  • Exposure to advertising of substances or behaviors.
  • Exhibiting a mental health condition.
  • A history of abuse and neglect in childhood.
  • Low parental monitoring, neglect, and abuse.


If you read the list above, you might have noticed that almost all the causes of addiction, except the genetic component, are avoidable.


Types of Addiction



One can become addicted to about any substance or behavior. Compulsive behavior, cravings, and lifestyle dysfunctions seriously impact a person’s health, relationships, and livelihood.


Addiction is a complex disease; no matter what, the substance or behavior causes its victims to chase after that pleasurable euphoric feeling while causing damage.


There are two types of addictions: physical and behavioral.


Physical Addiction. Physical addictions are better known among the public and include addiction to substances that are ingested or otherwise put into your body.


The most common physical addictions are listed below.


  • Tobacco
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Prescription drugs
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Hallucinogens
  • Amphetamines
  • Inhalants
  • PCP
  • Methamphetamine


Physical addictions are further grouped into three categories, alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription drugs.


Behavioral Addiction. This type of addiction includes any behavior where you lose control over your actions to engage in behaviors that make you feel brief euphoria. The affected person depends on the euphoria from certain behaviors and compulsive actions.


The most common types of behavioral addictions are listed below.


  • Addiction to food
  • Sex addiction
  • Addiction to pornography
  • Internet addiction
  • Addiction to using computers or cell phones
  • Work addiction
  • Exercise addiction
  • Spiritual obsession
  • Cutting
  • Shopping addiction
  • Gambling addiction
  • Video gaming addiction


There are many more physical and behavioral addictions.


Trauma and Addiction: Is There a Connection?


Trauma is considered the root cause of addiction. Trauma in childhood especially leaves adults vulnerable to forming an addiction once a substance or behavior is introduced to them.


The nature of addiction is to self-soothe, to make one’s problems disappear for a while, covered over like a dirty Band-Aid on a festering wound. Unfortunately, there comes a time in every addict’s life when the wound beneath the Band-Aid begins to cause pain because although the person briefly covers over the memories of what happened to them, it is still there when they get sober.


Chasing the emotional and physical pain-relieving euphoria of a substance or a behavior leaves the person experiencing addiction desperately craving to feel that release again.


We are only now beginning to understand the link between addiction and trauma. Childhood trauma does more than make a person more vulnerable to forming depression and other mental health problems later in life.


There is evidence that suggests that it causes specific changes in the brain.


Some researchers at the University of Texas studied 32 teens, 19 of which had experienced childhood maltreatment. Later, using a brain-imaging technique measuring the integrity of white matter (the ‘wiring’ that connects different brain regions), the scans showed that teens who had experienced childhood trauma had connectivity problems in more than one area of their brains.


These changes involve the left side of the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF), which is necessary for planning behavior, and the hippocampus, which connects the brain’s emotional processing regions to those involved with abstract thought. This part of the brain is also thought to regulate the brain’s response to emotional stress.


Simply put, trauma changes the brain by making it unable to regulate how it responds to stress (such as child abuse), setting the person up for an addiction.


We are only beginning to explore addiction, which is not well understood.


Current Treatments for Trauma and Addictions



Addiction affects the lives of approximately 20.7 million people in the United States, but only 2.5 million ever receive treatment. Denial is the driving force behind many not seeking treatment, as when you are in active addiction, you rationalize your behaviors and tend to blame your addiction on others.


To be clear, addiction is not a weakness. Instead, it is a brain disorder that has serious long-term consequences. A person experiencing an addiction requires individualized treatments to address the symptoms and causes of their problem.


Psychotherapy, in its many forms, are the current treatments for addiction. There are some pharmaceutical treatments, but these cannot be taken long-term and do not treat the underlying traumatic cause of addiction.


Some other types of psychotherapy that may help a person living with addiction include but are not limited to the following.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT encourages people to question and examine repeated negative thoughts to phase them out, replacing them with healthy ones. People who receive CBT learn to recognize and change their maladaptive behaviors by using coping skills when faced with risky situations (triggers).


Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This type of therapy teaches people how to regulate their emotions to reduce self-destructive behaviors caused by intense self-limiting thought patterns. Although DBT works best for severe personality disorders, it is somewhat effective for treating addiction.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR aids people in their recovery from their traumatic experiences and lessens their symptoms and distress. This treatment involves engaging other brain parts through bilateral eye movements while discussing the trauma. EMDR helps the brain’s information processing system to heal and promotes emotional stability.


There are also twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous that have only between an 8-12% success rate. The bottom line is that addiction is a devilishly tricky disease to treat and has yet to be cured, although it has been arrested in some people.


Ending Our Time Together


People suffering from an addiction have been ridiculed and wrongfully told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Such treatment only drives the affected person further into their substance or behavior.


There are no cures currently available for addiction. However, if the trauma that causes addiction goes untreated, the person experiencing it will not do well.


Perhaps to stop addictions in the future, we should advance our awareness of the trauma that our children are going through. Children belong to all of us, and we need to be more vigilant and not afraid to speak up when we see children being mistreated or neglected.


To report child abuse and neglect, please call your local police, sheriff’s department, or a children’s hotline such as the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). They are open 24/7, seven days a week, and speak over 200 languages. The hotline isn’t just for reporting child maltreatment; it offers many valuable resources and is an excellent resource for mandated reporters.


Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it. – Tori Amos


Part of the healing process is sharing with other people who care. – Jerry Cantrell




Khoury, L., Tang, Y. L., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. F., & Ressler, K. J. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and post-traumatic stress disorder in an urban civilian population. Depression and anxiety27(12), 1077-1086.


Sheeren, M. (1988). The relationship between relapse and involvement in alcoholics anonymous. Journal of Studies on Alcohol49(1), 104-106.

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