The Role of Trauma in Forming an Addiction

Addiction almost always has underlying causes, and successfully treating addiction requires addressing all of an individual’s issues that are related to the addiction. In particular, trauma affects addiction risk factors in significant ways.

A history of trauma is one of the most common contributing factors in the development of an addiction. Exposure to trauma—especially in childhood—increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder down the road. A study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety found that early trauma, which often includes physical and sexual abuse and family violence, changes the brain’s neural structures and functions.1 These changes commonly lead to cognitive deficits and mental illnesses later on.

Understanding how trauma affects addiction is essential for understanding how the addiction and trauma need to be treated.

Addiction and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental condition that may occur shortly after a traumatic event or years later. If it’s not treated, it can last for months or years. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Anger
  • Flashbacks
  • Depression

People with PTSD commonly have trouble trusting others, and they often withdraw from friends and family. The connection between PTSD and addiction is well-documented, and it’s particularly strong for adolescents. Fifty-nine percent of young people with PTSD develop a substance use disorder later in life.

Trauma affects addiction by leading people with PTSD to self-medicate their symptoms with drugs or alcohol. Using substances can help them sleep, stave off nightmares and reduce anxiety or depression. But drugs and alcohol always make symptoms of PTSD worse over time, which leads to even heavier substance abuse. This creates a vicious cycle that can seem impossible to end.

How Trauma Affects Addiction in Women

Up to 80 percent of women in treatment for a substance use disorder report a history of trauma, most commonly sexual or physical abuse, according to a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services.2 The study found that women who abuse alcohol and drugs had significantly higher scores for PTSD than non-users.

The National Institutes on Health cites sexual abuse as the most common cause of PTSD in women.3 One study found that 94 percent of women exhibited symptoms of PTSD within the first two weeks after a sexual assault.

Trauma and Combat

Post-traumatic stress disorder is also common among military veterans who have been deployed to a combat zone. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, around 12 percent of Gulf War veterans, 20 percent of Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans and 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD in any given year.4 Additionally, 23 percent of female veterans report being the victim of a sexual assault while serving in the military, increasing their risk of PTSD. Up to 75 percent of veterans who have survived sexual abuse or been the victim of or witness to violence report having problematic drinking patterns.

Integrated Treatment is Essential for Successful Recovery

Because trauma affects addiction and addiction affects trauma, people with a history of trauma who have developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol require integrated treatment for successful recovery. Integrated treatment involves treating the trauma in the context of the addiction, and vice versa. Treating both the addiction and the PTSD at the same time improves the outcomes of treatment for both disorders.

If you have a history of trauma and are addicted to or heavily abuse drugs or alcohol, professional help through a high-quality treatment program can help. Treatment is essential for restoring good mental health and improving your quality of life for the long-term.



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