The Link Between Trauma and Addiction 

What causes addiction?

That is a question that has many answers, with biology, psychology, and society all playing a role. For many people, trauma is likely a large part of why they develop a substance use disorder. Study after study has shown a correlation — and the evidence is there, too, for the benefit of opioid addiction treatment that incorporates trauma therapy.  

Studies have shown that those with exposure to trauma during childhood are 25% to 76% more likely to develop a substance use disorder than their peers. Those whose trauma is severe enough to develop into PTSD are 14% to 59% more likely to have a substance use disorder later on.  

Research also indicates that the more trauma, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, a kid goes through, the more likely they are to start abusing alcohol and drugs in adulthood. And the more severe the trauma is, the worse the substance use disorder can be.  

Trauma Alters the Brain

The reason for this goes back to the way trauma alters the brain. When experiencing stress, the body goes into fight or flight mode, causing the secretion of stress hormones such as adrenaline. When children experience sustained trauma, they’re in fight or flight mode constantly. This has severe and long-lasting consequences, including damage to emotional regulation skills, executive functioning, and the immune system. Childhood trauma can also change the way the body produces oxytocin and serotonin, which can lead to depression.  

Drugs and alcohol are a way for people with trauma to self-medicate. To calm their overactive stress response and resulting anxiety, they might turn to depressants, such as opioids, to achieve numbness. Or if they’re experiencing the dissociation or numbness that can also come with trauma, they might try stimulants, such as cocaine, to combat it.   

Despite this connection between trauma and addiction, only 19.7% of outpatient substance abuse treatment programs offer trauma treatment consistently. This could be out of fear that reliving their trauma could trigger them. Instead, an emphasis is placed on treating the substance use disorder only. But refusing to treat the underlying cause of their substance use disorder could also make patients more vulnerable to relapse.  

Treating Addiction at the Source

Multiple studies have shown that residential treatment programs that used integrated trauma services had higher retention rates than those that didn’t. This is important because those who complete their treatment tend to have better outcomes after treatment concludes. Other research shows a correlation between improvements in PTSD symptoms and reduction in substance use, even one year after treatment.  

One way that recovery centers can prevent triggering their clients is to conduct trauma-based therapy one-on-one instead of in a group setting, where stories from other sufferers could cause them emotional distress. 

Trauma treatments that could help with substance use disorders are cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and EMDR therapy. A 2017 research review of EDMR therapy showed that it has been known to improve alcohol and opioid addictions.  

Cooperative Recovery, based in Nashville, Tennessee and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, offers trauma therapy in concert with Suboxone treatment to treat clients’ substance use disorders and underlying trauma at the same time. Schedule an appointment today by calling 616-903-8091 or filling out this contact form