Trauma, Abuse & Addiction

man coping with traumaFor some individuals who are working to overcome substance abuse or addiction, dependency developed largely as a response to past trauma or abuse. For this reason, trauma and abuse survival are two central topics discussed in our intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment program. Here is a look at how trauma and abuse can be linked to addiction.


Trauma and PTSD are often intertwined with drug and alcohol addiction, as trauma has proven to be a major underlying source of addictive behavior. Having experienced trauma does not, of course, guarantee that you will develop a substance addiction, but it does put you at higher risk. Substance abuse may begin as a form of self-medication, for example, where a drug or alcohol is used to combat symptoms of trauma like anxiety, fear, insomnia, shame, guilt, self-blame, irritability, and insomnia. Trauma can also have significant rewiring effects on the brain, causing an individual to experience higher than normal rates of anxiety, to re-experience memories in the present-day loop, and to more readily engage in behaviors they might normally inhibit. These neurological effects of trauma can ultimately predispose that individual and make them more likely to develop an addiction.

Trauma can stem from a variety of sources, including accidents, natural disasters, injuries, violent attacks, ongoing stress (such as living in a high-crime neighborhood or battling a chronic illness), an unexpected death, a breakup in a significant relationship, or a deeply humiliating experience. There is, of course, also abuse, which will be covered in this next section.


Physical and sexual abuse are two types of trauma that carry especially strong links to substance abuse and addiction. Physical abuse is defined as the use of physical force that may result in bodily injury, physical pain, or impairment. It can involve striking, slapping, hitting, beating, pushing, shaking, kicking, or even burning. In most cases, children are the victims of physical abuse, but adults can be the victims of physical abuse as well. Just as with any form of trauma, physical abuse can have rewiring effects on the brain, making a person more prone to experiencing anxiety, stress, low self-worth, or depression—any of which can ultimately become a trigger for substance use.
Sexual abuse is defined as any sexual-based act or event that causes trauma to the victim. It may take the form of rape, incest, sexual assault, sexual harassment, child molestation, or hate crime based on gender identity or sexual orientation; and it can cause significant physical and/or psychological harm to the victim. Sexual abuse is estimated to make an individual 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, in their lifetime. There is an especially strong correlation between a history of sexual abuse and addictive behaviors in women.