How Does Trauma Relate to Substance Use Disorder?

Individuals struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) typically have an underlying cause driving their addiction. In many circumstances, that root cause is trauma. Traumatic experiences can be emotionally and psychologically scarring and often culminate in the development of mental disorders, SUD being just one example.

Understanding the connection between trauma and SUD may illustrate why trauma-informed care is so beneficial. In addition to SUD, trauma can be an initial cause of several mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, panic disorder, or other psychological conditions. The occurrence of one or more of these mental illnesses in addition to SUD may require dual diagnosis treatment. 

Most of us experience trauma, and the brain and body respond differently. Take the necessary steps toward healing from your past trauma and seek addiction or mental health treatment today. 

Trauma and Mental Health

How we respond to distressing situations as adults may or may not be a natural response. Humans experience an adrenal response to stress, often in fight-or-flight situations. However, trauma at a young age may impact our natural response. For example, if a child is never taught healthy ways to cope with stress or trauma, they may search for alternative coping mechanisms such as unhealthy ones like self-harm, substance use, or other forms of self-medication. 

In addition to unhealthy coping techniques, untreated trauma's impact may lead to further mental health complications. Substance use often becomes a way to cope with initial trauma and newly developed mental disorders. Behavioral therapies, medication, and other treatment modalities can help individuals cope with their trauma. Unfortunately, the longer it is left untreated, the more their mental health tends to suffer. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

A well-known example that illustrates the detrimental impact of trauma on mental health is among individuals diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD is a mental health disorder that develops after a traumatic event. Such events include "combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault." Not all events are so intense, though. Individuals can also develop PTSD after experiencing things like the unexpected death of a loved one or a panic attack.

Like other mental illnesses, "genetics, neurobiology, risk factors, and personal factors may affect whether you get PTSD after a traumatic event." Put more simply, individuals of all ages and backgrounds can develop PTSD, though some factors may increase the likelihood of its development. For example, childhood trauma, lack of social support, and a history of mental illness or SUD can all increase an individual's chances of developing PTSD. 

Symptoms of PTSD

The signs and symptoms of PTSD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, fall into a few different categories. These include re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal and reactivity, and cognition and mood symptoms. 

Some of the symptoms in this category include: 

  • Experiencing nightmares or flashbacks 
  • Avoiding people, places, or things reminiscent of a traumatic event 
  • Constantly feeling on edge 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • A loss of interest in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyable 

Without proper treatment, a person may begin drinking, misusing prescription drugs, or abusing illegal substances to cope with symptoms like these. To truly heal from trauma and prevent substance use and dependency, individuals must seek treatment as soon as possible. 

Preventing Substance Use With Trauma-Informed Care

The Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center describes trauma-informed care as a shift in focus between asking someone what has happened to them instead of what is wrong with them. It requires "care teams to have a complete picture of a patient's life situation—past and present" to provide effective treatment. 

According to this organization, trauma-informed care seeks to 

  • Acknowledge the widespread effect of trauma and potential paths for recovery 
  • Recognizing the signs of trauma 
  • Integrate knowledge, services, and resources about trauma into policies and procedures 
  • Actively avoid re-traumatization 

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes 6 guiding principles of a trauma-informed approach to care. These principles are as follows: 

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support
  • Collaboration and mutuality
  • Empowerment and choice
  • Cultural, historical & gender issues

Trauma-informed addiction treatment does not just focus on recovery. It allows clients to heal from their trauma and learn healthy techniques that prevent them from turning to substance use. 

Seek Treatment and Find Healing Today

As mentioned, many people experience co-occurring disorders alongside SUD. Trauma has a profound effect on people, especially at a young age. It can alter how people think, react, and see the world. Seeking proper treatment for trauma is vital to preventing SUD as it can keep individuals from turning to substance use as a way to heal. 

Healing cannot be found through self-medication with substances. It can, however, be found in proper trauma-informed care. So seek the care you deserve today. 

Trauma profoundly impacts us physically, psychologically, and emotionally, whether in a single instance or as a recurring event. In addition to leading to the development of other mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma can also lead to substance use disorder (SUD). When untreated, individuals who have experienced trauma often use substances to cope. This can easily shift to a dependency on alcohol or drugs. While initial treatment is effective, seeking trauma-informed addiction treatment can help you manage SUD and trauma effectively. The first step is up to you. If you are actively turning to substance use to cope with trauma and struggle to quit, call NorthStar Transitions at (303) 558-6400 today. 

Search Blog Posts
Back to blog
Call 866-407-2240
Verify Insurance