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The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction


Addiction, also known as substance use disorder (SUD), is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), as a chronic, relapsing neurological disorder. It is characterized by “clinically significant impairments in health, social function, and voluntary control over substance use.” Although the exact reason behind why an individual develops SUD remains unknown, several risk factors (e.g., environmental risk factors, genetic risk factors, psychological risk factors, socioeconomic risk factors, etc.) have been reported to increase one’s susceptibility to substance use disorder. For example, the connection between trauma and addiction is well-established, and individuals who have experienced trauma are at an increased risk of developing substance use disorders. 

Trauma, which can take various forms (e.g., physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, accidents, natural disasters, witnessing violence, etc.), results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening and subsequently impair a person’s functioning by causing adverse effects on one’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and/ or spiritual well-being. Findings from a report issued by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs illuminate the strong correlation between trauma and addiction:

  • An estimated 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.

The intricate connection between trauma and addiction is deeply rooted in the profound impact that distressing experiences can have on an individual’s psychological and emotional well-being. Many individuals, grappling with the emotional pain associated with trauma, turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. This self-medication serves as a temporary escape from the anxiety, depression, and/ or fear linked to traumatic experiences. The interplay between trauma and addiction is further complicated by changes in brain chemistry, as trauma alters the brain’s stress and reward systems, while substance abuse reinforces this connection. The vulnerability induced by trauma, along with the cycle of addiction providing momentary relief, creates a challenging loop that can be difficult to break. The co-occurrence of trauma and substance use disorders is prevalent, with each reinforcing the other. Trauma survivors often find themselves caught in a cycle where substance use temporarily alleviates distress but exacerbates long-term consequences, perpetuating the reliance on substances. Effective treatment necessitates a comprehensive, trauma-informed approach that acknowledges the intertwined nature of trauma and addiction, addressing both aspects to pave the way for lasting recovery.

For Information and Support 

Substance abuse and addiction can be incredibly dangerous and can result in severe short and long-term consequences. If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse or addiction, please get help as soon as possible. The earlier you seek support, the sooner you and your loved ones can return to leading happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives. There is no reason to go through this alone, and we are here to help. Please feel free to reach out to us for further information or with any questions regarding substance abuse or addiction. We are available anytime via telephone at: 213-389-9964, or you can always email us at:

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