The Correlation Between Trauma & Substance Abuse

By The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake | Editor Melissa Carmona
Medically Reviewed By Nanci Stockwell, LCSW, MBA

Man in military clothing seated on couch holding his head in his hands

One of the most frequently asked questions regarding substance abuse is, “what causes addiction?” While there’s no clear answer, there are several risk factors that affect the likelihood that a person will experience addiction during their lifetime.

A family history of addiction, having a mental health disorder, peer pressure, lack of family involvement, and a genetic predisposition are all common risk factors associated with substance abuse and addiction. But another risk factor, one that’s often overlooked, is trauma—especially trauma that occurs during childhood.

Emotional abuse, rape, sexual assault, the death of a loved one, being the victim of a crime or accident, and catastrophic natural disasters are all examples of traumatic events that may have an impact on substance abuse and addiction.

But how much do these events impact the likelihood of developing an addiction? And is there a way to prevent substance abuse later in life after an individual has experienced trauma?

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Biology and genetics play a critical role in brain development, but the human brain also has the ability to respond and adapt to environmental stimulation. As the brain grows and matures during childhood, it creates, strengthens, and occasionally discards neural connections. Every experience a child has, whether positive or negative, affects the brain in some way.

While most experiences cause the brain to develop in a way that’s beneficial, negative experiences can impede the brain’s development. Specifically, negative experiences during childhood, such as trauma, are believed to cause certain anomalies in brain structure that can result in cognitive, behavioral, and social impairments. According to data published by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, one in four children experiences at least one potentially traumatic event before turning 16.

Is There a Correlation Between Trauma and Substance Abuse?

Although experiencing trauma doesn’t mean a person will develop an addiction, research suggests there’s a significant, undeniable link between trauma and substance abuse.

Researchers at the University of Texas studied 32 teenagers, 19 of whom had been maltreated during childhood but had not been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. The other participants served as the control group and had no history of any major childhood trauma or psychiatric problems. All of the teens were followed up every six months for approximately three and a half years. The researchers found that nearly half of the children who experienced trauma developed depression, an addiction, or both during the study. The comparison between the two groups showed that the rate of developing an addiction or mental health disorder in the maltreated teens was three times higher than in the control group.

But it’s not just childhood trauma that has an impact on addiction. A report issued by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and The Department of Veteran Affairs showed a strong correlation between trauma and addiction in adults as well. Some of the significant findings of the report include:

  • Sources estimate that between 25 to 75% of people who survive abuse and/or a violent trauma develop issues related to substance abuse.
  • 10 to 33% of survivors of accidents, illnesses or natural disasters report having a substance use disorder.
  • A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder.
  • Male and female sexual abuse survivors experience a higher rate of drug and alcohol use disorders compared to those who have not survived such abuse.

Can Addiction Be Prevented After Trauma?

Not every person who experiences a traumatic event will develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, which makes it difficult for experts to say whether it can truly be prevented. However, people who don’t seek help when dealing with traumatic experiences are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, which can lead to a substance use disorder over time.

Perhaps the best way to prevent substance abuse after a traumatic event is to ensure that the individual seeks some form of treatment, such as therapy with a licensed professional. Addressing the underlying trauma and the feelings associated with that trauma can help prevent a person from turning to drugs or alcohol in the future to cope with their emotions.

Help is Available

You didn’t wake up one morning and decide to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event at one point in your life, there’s a chance you’re using drugs or alcohol to cope with those feelings and experiences, even if you don’t realize it. You don’t need to feel embarrassed, upset, or frustrated with yourself forever. Help is available, and by accepting treatment, you can begin to deal with your trauma, overcome your addiction, and live a happy, fulfilled life in recovery.

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