Past trauma is often a big ignitor for problems we face in adulthood. The scariest part is, we often don’t realize just how deeply unresolved issues from trauma affect us. Most people do not connect the experiences they’ve had in the past with things they are struggling with today, and it can prevent them from truly healing. In fact, unless a person attends therapy, it’s unlikely they will ever truly move forward if the trauma was severe enough. Unresolved trauma is a huge contributing factor to developing an addiction, and when you’re in recovery, one of your main focuses will be to address and work through this trauma. 

What is trauma?

What exactly classifies something as trauma? Trauma is the response to an event in one’s life that results in feelings of depression, helplessness, distress, and any number of negative emotions.

It is impossible to say whether or not something that has happened to you could be considered trauma, by anyone other than yourself of course. Sometimes a person can witness something that we would definitely consider to be a severely traumatic occurrence, and still come out of it without developing any further issues that negatively impact their life. However, on the other hand, there is no severity scale out there that dictates what people should and shouldn’t find traumatic. As long as their brains register an occurrence as trauma, the person can develop mental health issues because of it. That said, the occurrences that are most often considered to be traumatic include:

  • serious accidents
  • physical or sexual assault
  • abuse, including childhood or domestic abuse
  • severe health problems
  • childbirth experiences, such as experiencing a miscarriage 
  • war and combat
  • torture

Know, however, that this is not a comprehensive list. Just because you haven’t experienced any of the things listed above, this doesn’t mean that you did not experience trauma. Also know that on the opposite hand, even if you have experienced any or some of the above, it doesn’t mean you must have some sort of problem. 

How do people respond to trauma?

As we mentioned earlier, people respond to trauma in a number of ways. Here are some of the common symptoms of having had experienced it:


  • sadness
  • anger
  • denial
  • shame
  • fear
  • insomnia & sleeping difficulties
  • suffering relationships
  • emotional outbursts


  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • altered sleep patterns
  • changes in appetite
  • headaches
  • stomach problems


Why trauma can lead to substance abuse disorder and addiction

Because of the aforementioned effects of trauma, it can be extremely difficult for people who have experienced it in some form to cope with the negative emotions and stress associated with it. This is where substance abuse comes in. 

It has been reported that 90 percent of individuals in a behavioral healthcare setting have experienced trauma. As you can assume based on the high number, trauma is potent. This is because trauma often leads to high levels of stress. As we know, stress is one of the biggest contributing factors to developing an addiction. Drugs, alcohol, certain foods, and activities have the same effect of stimulating the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, causing us to experience a pleasurable response. The brain remembers the good feeling that the substance or activity caused, and it will instill a desire in you to continue seeking out whatever caused the response. These pleasurable experiences are especially desired when the person is also experiencing stress brought on by trauma, as the dopamine provides an escape from the negative feelings. Another important factor in whether or not a person develops an addiction due to trauma is if they have healthy coping skills. A lack of healthy coping skills is a big predictor of someone turning to drugs, alcohol, or other damaging methods of managing painful emotions.

Drug withdrawal symptoms can worsen symptoms and results of trauma, making it extremely difficult to not only stop using the drug but also to heal from the trauma itself. This is why if you or a loved one are struggling with ill effects from trauma and addiction, it is crucial to seek help as quickly as possible so that you can begin the process of healing as soon as possible. 

Treatment Options for Trauma & Substance Abuse

When trauma and addiction are present, it is essential to use a holistic approach and treat the two simultaneously. Not only is the interplay between trauma and addiction complex, but each individual will have different symptoms and experiences which add to the layers of complexity with treatment. If the dependence on the drug is significant, detoxing is usually the first step.  

Medical detox is the best and most optimal plan of action for kickstarting treatment. During medical detox, an individual is admitted to a specialized addiction treatment facility where they can stay for as long as it takes for them to get the drug out of their system. These facilities have 24/7 access to knowledgeable, trained medical professionals and mental health counselors who are there for you whenever you need them. You will be able to heal in a secure, safe, and comfortable environment. 

In order to better manage stress, cope with potential triggers, enhance one’s self-esteem, and combat negative thoughts, behavioral therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may be used. It is believed that through CBT, clients can learn better coping mechanisms and change unhelpful thought patterns in order to have relief from symptoms and be able to function with ‘untreatable’ issues. This form of therapy is backed up by ample scientific evidence and methods that have been developed over decades. Client self-determination is key for CBT, and the therapist and client work together to develop an understanding of the problems surrounding the client and a manageable treatment strategy using short term micro goals. This therapy has been proven to help with trauma and the symptoms surrounding traumatic events because of the emphasis on coping mechanisms and helping the client take charge of their life and their own thoughts and behaviors.

In addition, Exposure Therapy is useful in helping those with PTSD confront their fears and traumas head-on. CBT has bits of this in the form of facing the client’s fears, but exposure therapy directly exposes the client to memories or triggers. This is to slowly lessen the effects of the triggers, or make it so that the memory does not hold the same power over the client. Exposure therapy has to be done carefully so as not to worsen the condition of it. This is done by a process of intervention and guided discovery so that the client is helped, not harmed. Exposure therapy also focuses on coping mechanisms for the client as a way to manage the symptoms of trauma. Exposure therapy is usually done long-term and gradually.

In addition, medications, when used in conjunction with behavioral therapy techniques, can help manage severe symptoms so that a person can enjoy their daily life.

It’s important to remember that recovering from trauma is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Typically, trauma and addiction issues must be addressed together for treatment to be successful. Addressing trauma isn’t usually a pleasant experience, and you will need the help of a good therapist to work through the intense emotions that will arise. However, this is a necessary evil to get through so you can live the life you’ve always deserved. 

Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2009. Call 602-346-9142.