Rehab 4 Addiction

It’s long been recognized in the addiction field that trauma and addiction are inextricably linked. Addiction expert, Gabor Maté, claims all addiction ultimately stems from trauma.

Up to 75% of people who have experienced abusive or violent traumatic events develop drink problems.

Psychotherapists the world over advocate how early childhood experiences are instrumental in influencing the adults we become. There is also the trauma that occurs later in life, whether violent, sexual or otherwise. 

This might be due to an event like assault, or developing PTSD after working in the armed forces. These types of events can go on to have detrimental ongoing effects.

Addiction from trauma

Addiction from trauma

It’s only natural that, where trauma exists, the person will look for ways to cope with the thoughts and feelings around it. Coping mechanisms can create both healthy and unhealthy behaviours.

Many people will have developed an addiction without any conscious awareness that they have experienced trauma. This is especially the case where people have experienced a lifestyle where certain events are considered “normal”.

A child raised in a home with regular domestic violence may have become used to it.

Although traumatised, the person may not identify this as trauma. Nevertheless, it is neither a normal nor a healthy experience to live through.

It’s not surprising that when people live through horrific events, they seek out strategies to cope.

What’s so addictive about drugs, sex, alcohol, and gambling?

Alcohol Addictive

In the case of trauma and addiction, it’s useful to keep in mind that not every person who experiences trauma will go on to develop an addiction.

The development of an addiction boils down to the individual person combined with the particular substance (i.e. alcohol or cocaine) or thing (i.e. pornography or gambling).

It’s important to bear in mind two things: 

  • Psychoactive substances (alcohol and drugs) have a direct effect on brain functioning and its rewards systems. They release “happy chemicals” (i.e. dopamine) to create the desired positive effects.

These feelings, especially where a person doesn’t experience them anywhere else, are thereafter likely to be sought again.

  • An addictive “thing” or activity (i.e. pornography, sex, gambling) can create behavioural addictions which activate the pleasure centre in the brain.

However, as just mentioned, not every person who tries cocaine or gambling will develop an addiction. Although certain substances and things can be addictive, they aren’t for every person.

The person’s own particular makeup is one major factor, as is their reaction to the addictive substance or activity.

Addiction can also be influenced by a genetic predisposition and a family history of addiction.

A person who has been traumatised will also benefit from being aware that their own likelihood of becoming addicted fluctuates throughout life. 

This is why it’s important to think about what you get up to at different moments in life.

If you’re in a good mental and physical condition, you’re less likely to develop an addiction than when you’re in a negative space.

How does trauma increase the likelihood of addiction?

Childhood Trauma

Living through harrowing and traumatic events will take its toll. Human minds are made up of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. A huge amount of damage can take place within a person and go unnoticed. 

This is often mental and emotional damage. With the passing of time, if left untreated, this type of damage can go on to become a physical ailment.

What do many people do when they have experienced trauma? 

They self-medicate. People turn to substances and various activities that can cause addictions in order to escape negative feelings.

This is commonly known as self-medicating. People want to escape memories or numb the pain of trauma.

The more people use substances or activities to manage feelings, the more addicted they can become to these things.

This is the coping mechanism that has made life easier to deal with, even in the face of unhealthy consequences.

What else influences an addiction developing?

Mental Health

As well as trauma, the following factors can contribute to an addiction developing:

  • Poverty
  • Mental health conditions
  • Discrimination and being subject to hate crimes
  • Isolation
  • Spending time with other people who have addictions
  • Being homeless
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Family history of addiction

How does addiction present when a person has experienced trauma?

Trauma addiction

Many people will enter treatment and the focus will be on the addiction. It might take a little time before any associated trauma comes to the fore.

A person who has experienced trauma is more likely to use substances at an earlier age. They’re likely to move more quickly from experimental use to problematic.

A traumatised person usually has fewer healthy coping mechanisms to lean on. Therefore, they are more likely to relapse.

There is also an increased risk of people moving towards class A drugs.

What does addiction offer a person who is traumatised?

What does addiction offer

Addiction provides an escape from the trauma that has been endured.

Even if the trauma occurred years ago and the addiction developed years later, addiction is an escape from the feelings and emotions that haunt.

The lived experience of traumatising events and their after-effects can be extremely isolating. Substances and activities which create addictions also tend to ease the feelings of loneliness.

Who is at a higher risk of developing an addiction in relation to trauma?

Who is at risk

It has to be pointed out that addiction doesn’t discriminate. Any person, no matter their background, can develop a habitual problem and also experience trauma.

There are, however, some groups of people who are more at risk of trauma and addiction. These include:

  • Sex workers
  • The elderly
  • Ethnic minorities
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community
  • Those with disabilities
  • People who have been in the military
  • Teenagers
  • Those who are homeless
  • Those who have become refugees due to war
  • Those who work in public services (i.e. police, firefighters)

Many people aren’t associated with having a higher risk of addiction. It’s easy to assume that an emergency responder is a “high functioning member of society” and therefore wouldn’t be likely to develop addiction or experience trauma.

However, the scenarios first responders come across can be extremely traumatising.

Also, it’s helpful to keep in mind that if the person comes to harm, pain medication might be prescribed for injuries. Addiction to painkillers poses another addiction threat.

What’s your trauma-addiction pattern?

Addiction pattern

 In order for recovery to take place, self-awareness is really important. This can be difficult to approach for many.

There are some concepts that can help you think about your own life patterns. Being self-aware and understanding your response helps to ensure a successful recovery.

The four patterns that link trauma and addiction are:

  1. Trauma that has led to addiction. For the vast majority, this is the most likely. People experience trauma and then turn to a substance or activity, which leads to addiction.
  2. Addiction develops, trauma comes after. This is where, as a result of an addiction, the person becomes more vulnerable and trauma then occurs. For instance, someone who is addicted to heroin might become a sex worker and then get assaulted.
  3. The two develop alongside each other. This is most often seen where addictions and trauma are present in families through generations. Both internal (genetics) and external (learned) factors are at play.
  4. Addiction and trauma develop separately. A person might have an addiction to cocaine, for instance, but not experience trauma until ending up in a car accident. They’re separate from each other.

Sadly, addiction and trauma make each other worse. When one is triggered, the other usually is and this can keep bouncing backwards and forwards. This is what leads to a downwards spiral.

It’s really important to remember, though, that just as you can go down a spiral, you can rise back up it. If you focus on one of the issues and work to heal it, the other will also improve.

How can you support yourself?

Support yourself

If you have an addiction, you’ll be aware that you experience things differently when you’re under the influence, going through withdrawal and sober.

It’s really helpful to start tuning in to how trauma is affecting you while you’re in these different states.

Likewise, whether you’re experiencing trauma or in recovery from it, your addiction and use can be affected.

Start listening to your mind and body and how each part of you responds to the other.

It’s quite common for people who stop using substances to start having flashbacks, dreams, or uncomfortable experiences related to trauma. This can be because the substance was suppressing these experiences. 

When you’re aware of this, you can actively seek support and help plan around it in order to remain sober and to learn helpful coping strategies for the trauma.

Questions to help you understand your trauma and addiction

Understanding Trauma

To get to understand your addiction and trauma a little better, you can ask yourself the following:

  1. Which came first, addiction or trauma?
  2. Is either related to your family’s history?
  3. Which is affecting you most now?
  4. How does your addiction affect your trauma?
  5. How does trauma affect your addiction?
  6. What would you like to work on first?
  7. What can you do to start working on your trauma and addiction?

Seeking help

Seeking Help

If you’re curious as to whether you have an addiction and/or trauma problem, then you can get support and guidance. It’s really helpful to have input from a team of professionals as well as from people in a similar position as you through support groups

Recovery is possible. Contact Rehab 4 Addiction for information on your local rehabilitation services.



Boris is our editor-in-chief at Rehab 4 Addiction. Boris is an addiction expert with more than 20 years in the field.  His expertise covers a broad of topics relating to addiction, rehab and recovery. Boris is an addiction therapist and assists in the alcohol detox and rehab process. Boris has been featured on a variety of websites, including the BBC, Verywell Mind and Healthline.