Making the Connection Between Trauma and Substance Use

Concept of teenage depression and isolation.

When people struggle with trauma, they often strive to project an aspect of normalcy. If they haven’t sought professional treatment to remedy the effects of trauma, or a therapeutic approach wasn’t successful, or they have addiction in the family, they frequently default to coping mechanisms as a shield. The connection between trauma and substance use is well documented—the question is, how do we break it?

The Impact of Trauma

The National Council on Behavioral Health (NCBH), an initiative of the Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center, defines trauma as resulting from “exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.” Trauma can affect people of any age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.

NCBH indicates that 70 percent of adults in the U.S.–nearly 225 millions people–have experienced at least one type of traumatic event in their lives. More than 90 percent of clients in public behavioral health care have experienced trauma. But note: these are the reported cases. What about people who don’t understand how trauma might be influencing their thoughts and behaviors?

Medical News Today lists three categories of trauma, which we share verbatim:

  • Acute trauma: This results from a single stressful or dangerous event.
  • Chronic trauma: This results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events. Examples include cases of child abuse, bullying, or domestic violence.
  • Complex trauma: This results from exposure to multiple traumatic events.

When someone experiences trauma, they often develop a condition called dysregulation. This compromises metabolic, physiological, or psychological process regulation, and means they might develop various types of disorders—such as substance and alcohol use and co-occurring mental health issues—to compensate for their inability to address or cope with what happened to them.

9 Forms of Trauma 

Teach Trauma explains the various ways people suffer due to external circumstances. 

  1. Adverse childhood experiences, including abandonment, emotional or psychological abuse, neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. 
  2. Domestic violence, defined as “actual or threatened physical or sexual violence, and/or emotional abuse between adults in an intimate relationship.” Witnessing domestic violence against a partner or parent can also be traumatizing.
  3. Medical trauma, such as children or adults having adverse reactions to chronic or serious illnesses, invasive medical procedures, or painful treatments.
  4. Natural disasters, including earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and other incidents that result in damages that require local, state, or federal agencies to step in.
  5. Racial trauma, as the “consequences of systemic racism extend into all areas of life: social interactions; health, educational, and economic disparities; and disproportionate targeting by the criminal justice system, among many others.”
  6. School and community violence, such as bullying and “predatory violence or personal conflicts between people who are not family members (e.g., shootings, rape, robbery).”
  7. Sexual assault, which includes “any unwanted and involuntary sexual behavior towards a person. The victim is forced or coerced to engage in an act against their will in a non-consensual setting.”
  8. Traumatic loss, which is severe grief caused by unexpectedly losing someone close.
  9. War-related trauma, including combat-related PTSD, terrorism, and refugee and war zone trauma.

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, people with trauma are more likely than others of a similar background to develop alcohol or drug dependency both before and after being diagnosed with PTSD

Willingway: Breaking the Connection Between Trauma and Substance Use 

Whole-person healthcare must address all of an individual’s experiences and reveal a complete story of how events and reactions shape their life. At our Georgia and Florida addiction rehabilitation locations, we customize evidence-based treatment programs to help people address and move through negative experiences with trauma-informed care. Here’s how our approach may help you. 

Willingway’s primary therapeutic focus is to help individuals become substance free so they can begin effective trauma treatment, which is typically a longer, more comprehensive process—and much harder to accomplish without substance-free clarity. 

Since most clients initially seek residential treatment for primary substance use disorder, it’s not clinically indicated to begin intensive trauma treatment during a short-term length of stay less than 45 days. However, our board-certified medical team will assist you in understanding how trauma impacts your substance use, daily living, and relationships. Additional therapeutic components include gender-specific recovery groups, family counseling, and other techniques.

Our treatment team will provide you with recommendations for ongoing trauma treatment and access to appropriate resources prior to discharge. There’s never any reason to hide pain, and our caring staff won’t turn a blind eye to it. For more than 50 years, we’ve helped guide people toward the rewarding, healthy lives they deserve. Call our admissions team anytime, day or night, if you’re ready to do this, too.