Why Trauma is an Important Addiction Driver

Physical or sexual abuse by a parent or close relative. Watching a family member shoot up heroin. The anxiety of worrying about mom or dad in prison. The danger of gun violence. Too many American children are confronted with these kinds of traumatizing experiences every day. They can have a devastating impact on their long-term health.

In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a new report on adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs that provided further insights into the enormous impact of childhood trauma. “Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.”

Experiencing trauma is common for adults, too. According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, about 7–8 percent of the population will have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. “About 8 million adults have PTSD during a given year. This is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma.” Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury. Trauma causes a lot of mental health issues in the military. The consequences of military deployments include PTSD, major depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

Driving Addiction

Many studies have shown a link between exposure to traumatic experiences and substance use disorder (SUD). SUDs are highly comorbid with PTSD and other mood-related conditions.  In her book Trauma and Addiction author Tian Dayton sums it up the connection:

“A person who is abused or traumatized may develop dysfunctional defense strategies or behaviors to ward off emotional and psychological pain. These might include self-medicating with chemicals (drugs and alcohol), as well as behavioral addictions that affect brain chemistry (bingeing, purging or withholding food), or engaging in high-risk or high-intensity activities (such as excessive work behaviors, risky sex, or gambling). These behaviors affect the pleasure centers of the brain, enhancing ‘feel-good’ chemicals, thus minimizing pain. This means of handling trauma can lead to the disease of addiction.”

Addiction thrives on a triad of genetic disposition, intense stress (especially trauma), and access to addictive substances. Substance misuse is only one aspect of addiction, many addiction professionals view drug and alcohol misuse primarily as a symptom and not necessarily as the main cause of the addiction. 

For addiction expert, Gabor Maté misusing substances is a person’s desperate attempt to solve deep-seated trauma, often originating in early childhood. In an interview with The Guardian, Maté suggested that addiction is not in itself the problem but rather an attempt to solve a problem. “Our birthright as human beings is to be happy, and the addict just wants to be a human being.”

Since trauma is such an important driver of substance use disorder, any existing posttraumatic stress needs to be addressed in therapy. Otherwise, the unresolved trauma will act as a significant barrier to sustained recovery and become a dangerous relapse trigger. Living with active addiction is frequently traumatizing as well, reinforcing the craving for drugs and alcohol. 

Recovery from addiction requires comprehensive treatment that looks at the whole patient, not just the substance use, because biology, life events, and psychological state all play important roles in addictive behavior. 


The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place offers superior addiction treatment services to individuals from all walks of life. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use and could benefit from addiction treatment services, please contact The Farley Center at 800.582.6066 or fill out our admissions request form.