Published on June 17, 2023

You Can’t Treat Addiction Without Treating Trauma

Why do some people become addicted to drugs and alcohol and others don’t? This is a common question for those battling addiction and their loved ones. Is addiction a moral weakness, a lack of self-control, or is there more going on than might be immediately apparent? 

The nature of addiction is complicated, multifaceted, and often involves a lot more than just the substance. Let’s look at the trauma-addiction connection and how understanding it can help those who are seeking recovery from substances.

What is Trauma?

There are a lot of common misconceptions about trauma. Many assume trauma is only experienced by veterans of war or those who have experienced intense physical or psychological damage. But the reality is, approximately 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health

Not only is trauma more common than many realize, but it can also have lasting impacts long after the traumatic events. Research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has shown that those who experienced physical trauma, psychological harm, neglect and abandonment as children are far more likely than their peers to experience a range of symptoms well into their adult lives. These symptoms include:

  • Underemployment
  • Poverty
  • Substance abuse 
  • Instability
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity 

There’s still a lot that isn’t known about how trauma impacts the lives of those who experience it, but research has shown that the effects can be devastating, and the impact on addiction is no exception.

Addiction as a Result of Trauma

A clear link has been identified between trauma (both adult and childhood) and addiction, according to many studies that have been done on the subject. Not everyone who experiences trauma will become dependent on substances, but many of those who do become addicts were traumatized at some point in their life.

So, why is this? What is it about trauma that makes a person more likely to abuse substances or develop an addiction? There are a number of reasons why this occurs, and it will vary from person to person. However, one recurring reason is that many people who have undergone trauma will use substances to self-soothe or self-medicate when negative memories or emotions arise. The tension and discomfort of the trauma can be ignored when in active substance use, but always comes back after sobering up—thus the cycle continues. People drink or use to forget their pain, but substance use is always a temporary fix and eventually the addicted person finds that their lives have become increasingly unmanageable in their pursuit of relief.

How to Treat Trauma in Recovery

Working through trauma is not a quick process. Often it can take years for many to even recognize that trauma exists and has impacted their life. Unpacking trauma is not a linear process either, and there’s rarely a defined “end point” of the healing journey. 

Often, trauma recovery is about recognizing the triggers, learning how to recognize the emotions, and figuring out ways to regulate emotions and actions in healthy ways. The impacts of trauma may never be fully eradicated, but many people find the effects to be far lessened after working through and processing the traumatic events.

Here are some steps to take to begin the trauma healing journey in recovery.

Seek Professional Support

Unpacking trauma can be an incredibly difficult process. Often, memories are suppressed or compartmentalized to prevent negative thoughts and emotions, so working through those alone can be stressful or even lead to a substance use relapse if not handled properly. Having a trained and licensed mental health therapist with experience in substance abuse treatment is a huge resource for working through the trauma-addiction connection. 

Find a Community

Having others to talk to, whether that’s one-on-one or in a group setting, can be helpful for reaching out and getting support during the difficult time of unpacking trauma. Sober communities, like Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-Step groups, can provide structure, support, and resources.

Practice Self-Care

Working through trauma can be intense and challenging. Self-care during this difficult time is important for the recovering person, but self-care looks different for everyone. Some examples of effective self-care activities include:

  • Keeping a digital or physical journal
  • Exercising and enjoyable physical activity, like swimming or walking
  • Reading for fun
  • Spending time in nature
  • Engaging in a recreational group

Develop a Safety Plan

Safety plans are fantastic tools for all kinds of substance abuse and mental health recovery programs. A safety plan is essentially a tool kit to use in a recovery or mental health healing journey. Working through trauma may require an updated (or completely new) safety plan to address new stressors and triggers during the trauma healing journey. A safety plan should be easily accessible at any time and should be tailored to the individual.

Some examples of things to include in a safe plan: 

  • Phone numbers of supportive friends or family members
  • The times and locations of support group meetings in the area
  • Effective coping skills
  • Grounding techniques and self-soothing strategies 
  • Emergency services numbers in case of crisis

Safety plans can be developed with a supportive therapist or mentor, or as a solo project, but it’s often best to share the safety plan with loved ones and supportive people so they can offer support when needed. 

Conclusion

Addiction is a complicated biological, psychological, and social disorder that affects everyone differently. Likewise, trauma affects everyone differently and to differing degrees. Healing from trauma is a lifelong journey for many, but understanding the connection between trauma and addiction can be incredibly helpful for those in recovery and their families. 

Confidential Recovery is here to help you navigate the difficult journey of healing trauma in substance abuse addiction. For more information and resources, check out Confidential Recovery

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman is passionate about recovery from addictions. After starting his own sobriety journey over 30 years ago, he found a purpose in helping others. His desire to support individuals along their sobriety journey motivated him to start Confidential Recovery, an organization that has assisted countless people over the years.


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