The Connection Between Addiction and Trauma

The Connection Between Addiction and Trauma

Countless research studies confirm the profound link between addiction and trauma.

Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to read an article or research paper that doesn’t corroborate these findings.

Childhood trauma, specifically, can increase an individual’s risk of addiction in adulthood; but why is this, and, more importantly, how can you recognize the signs within yourself or someone you care about?

This article explores the connection between trauma and addiction.

In the meantime, if you suspect that you (or a loved one) may be struggling with substance addiction, trauma, or both, it may be time to speak to a mental health professional who can provide additional help, support, and an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

Meet The Lighthouse Bali team

Our multidisciplinary team at The Lighthouse Bali provides personalized addiction and trauma treatment programs to clients from around the world, including Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Australasia and Asia.

Adopting a “whole” person approach to addiction recovery and not just symptom management (which doesn’t last, at least not in the long term), we work with you to create a bespoke treatment program that suits your unique needs and preferences.

Our trauma informed clinical team comprises Western-trained clinical psychologists, counselors, wellness therapists, and licensed practitioners from all around the globe to ensure you get the most out of your recovery and create a life free of substances.

Together, our team shares over a hundred years of continual sobriety. Therefore, we understand the true nature of addiction as well as the profound joy and exhilaration individuals and families experience in recovery.

What we treat

Our specialist teams treat and diagnose various addiction and mental health disorders, including:

Our treatment programs

Utilizing a wide range of different treatment approaches and modalities, our team offers the following bespoke treatment programs to those seeking help for addiction, trauma, and other mental health challenges:

  • Bespoke primary inpatient program
  • Secondary program
  • Trauma treatment program
  • Therapy and counseling – we provide individual and couples therapy, EMDR and schema treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness work, 12-step treatment, and more

To learn more about our addiction and mental health treatment programs, contact our friendly team at our Bali recovery center today, who will provide further help and assistance.

What is trauma?

Various descriptions of trauma exist, with some definitions being more accessible to understand than others!

Perhaps the least complicated way to conceptualize it is that trauma is a response to an event (or series of events) that psychologically overwhelms you.

These feelings of overwhelm may elicit various emotional and physiological responses, including:

  • Shock
  • Emotional numbness
  • Denial
  • Changes in your body, behavior, and worldview

The term “trauma” refers to an emotional wound or injury brought on by events that are disturbing, distressing, or otherwise profoundly upsetting.

Traumatic events can be categorized in various ways.

For instance, a person may experience a single event trauma, such as a car accident or the sudden death of a loved one. 

On the other hand, someone may experience prolonged exposure to traumatic events or long-term stressors, such as living in an abusive household or intimate partner violence. This type of trauma is called C-PTSD (or complex trauma.)

Trauma, no matter the type, can cause much distress to the affected individual, and how one person copes with a distressing event or experience will be entirely different from someone else.

For instance, two people experiencing the same event may have completely different responses and perceptions of what happened.

Therefore, you mustn’t compare your feelings and reactions to others.

Research shows those who experience trauma may develop mental health complications as a result.

For example, trauma survivors may experience flashbacks related to the distressing event, hypervigilance, anger, and other PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) presentations.

In addition, studies show that although substance use is not an official symptom of PTSD, approximately 59% of people diagnosed with PTSD develop issues with substance use and dependence. (Understanding the Link Between Trauma and Substance Abuse, verywell mind, Amy Marschall, PsyD, August 21, 2023.)

Let’s take a deeper look at the connection between addiction and trauma.

The connection between addiction and trauma

As well as the undeniable connection between addiction and trauma, researchers have also noted the following:

  • Trauma can result in a dysregulated nervous system, which, in turn, can make you more prone to addiction.
  • Trauma can lead to emotional numbness and dissociative disorders, increasing your risk of substance use and other dependency issues.
  • Utilizing a trauma-informed treatment approach is essential to addiction recovery and can lead to more favorable outcomes for those in treatment.

Adverse childhood experiences study (ACEs)

You may have heard of the adverse childhood experiences study, also called the ACEs study, developed by Felitti and colleagues in 1998.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) included traumatic events that occurred in the first eighteen years of life, such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, loss of a parent, abandonment, and neglect, exposure to intimate partner violence, and living with a family member with a mental illness.  (Why Trauma Can Lead to Addiction, Psychology Today, Amanda L. Giordano, Ph.D., LPC, September 25, 2021.)

The researchers concluded that the higher the ACE score, the more prone individuals are to alcohol and other drug use disorders in later life.

Studies show that ACEs are relatively prevalent, with around two-thirds of adults reporting at least one adverse childhood experience in their lifetime.

As common as ACEs might be, early childhood trauma can lead to various complications in later life, including mental health issues, a lack of social support, substance addiction, and, in some cases, premature death.

The role of the nervous system

Whether an individual is aware of it or not, substance use is often an attempt to regulate the nervous system.

For instance, those who experienced early childhood trauma may turn to alcohol or drugs to regulate unpleasant moods brought on by symptoms of trauma.

Drugs like cocaine and marijuana often induce temporary feelings of confidence and relaxation, which can help to cultivate a deeper connection to others, thus increasing an individual’s self-worth and sense of belonging.

By the same token, alcohol and drug use can provide short-term relief from unpleasant trauma symptoms, such as distressing memories, sensations, and emotions a person would rather forget or numb out entirely.

A prevalent outcome of childhood trauma is the dysregulation of the central nervous system, where individuals remain in a perpetual state of fight or flight.

For instance, those who witnessed domestic violence in childhood may struggle with hypervigilance and dissociation or constantly feel keyed up or on edge in later life.

Thus, those who experienced early trauma often turn to substances like drugs and alcohol in adulthood to cope with their past, feel more confident and socially connected, and regulate an imbalanced nervous system.

The addiction cycle

Drug use is influenced by various factors, including the effects of the drug itself, genetics, upbringing, and social environment.

The pleasurable effects of drugs are mainly due to their impact on the brain’s dopamine system.

Over time, prolonged substance use can cause various changes in brain pathways, making some individuals more prone to addiction.

Additionally, long-term drug use can result in negative emotional states, causing individuals to continue using drugs to alleviate these unpleasant feelings.

Surprisingly, in addicted individuals, the experience of using drugs may not produce the same level of dopamine increase in the brain’s reward centers.

This can lead to a cycle of compulsive drug use to compensate for the difference between “expected” and “actual” rewards.

These changes in the brain increase an individual’s motivation to seek drugs, particularly when triggered by cues associated with drug use.

Moreover, disrupted self-regulation and heightened awareness of drug cravings contribute to compulsive drug-taking behavior.

Nervous-system-informed therapeutic interventions must focus on reversing these brain changes, which, along with other treatments, can offer much hope and a brighter future for those struggling with addiction.

Symptoms of trauma-related substance addiction

If you are struggling with trauma-related substance addiction, you may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Severe cravings or urges to use a substance
  • Taking a substance in larger quantities or over an extended period that is longer than intended
  • Many repeated, unsuccessful attempts to reduce, quit, or control your use of a particular substance
  • Spending much of your time trying to get hold of, use, or recover from the effects of your substance of choice
  • Continuing to use a substance despite the various risks and negative consequences it may have on your life
  • Increased tolerance, meaning that you need more of a substance to experience its effects
  • Avoiding social events or other recreational activities due to substance use
  • Withdrawal when abstaining or not using the substance

The bottom line

Researchers and mental health professionals have endorsed the association between addiction and trauma for many years.

Individuals with trauma histories are more susceptible to substance use and have a higher risk of dependency than those without similar backgrounds or histories.

Childhood trauma specifically puts individuals at significant risk of addiction and substance use disorders in adulthood, as many use substances as a way to cope with the unpleasant effects of a lifelong dysregulated nervous system.

Lastly, the more traumas a person has experienced, the more susceptible they are to substance dependence and addiction throughout their lifespan.

A trauma-informed approach to treating addiction is essential and can lead to better treatment outcomes and lower relapse rates for those in recovery.

A good treatment program will include the following principles and methods:

  • Exploring and unearthing the root cause(s) of addiction, including an individual’s traumatic history
  • The practice of healthy coping skills
  • Addressing unresolved issues that may cause or worsen substance use
  • Rebuilding self-worth and confidence
  • Utilizing a healthy support system
  • A comprehensive aftercare program once an individual completes inpatient treatment

If you (or a loved one) are struggling with addiction or other emotional issues, the team at The Lighthouse Bali is here to help.

Contact us today for a confidential discussion and begin your journey toward lasting wellness and sobriety.

We are always here to lend a compassionate ear, so get in touch today.


Additional resources

  1. Understanding the Link Between Trauma and Substance Abuse, verywell mind, Amy Marschall, PsyD, August 21, 2023
  2. Why Trauma Can Lead to Addiction, Psychology Today, Amanda L. Giordano, Ph.D., LPC, September 25, 2021




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