The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

There is a robust correlation in the scientific literature between trauma and addiction.

Trauma and other mental health conditions are frequently co-occurring with substance use disorder (SUD) because many people with addiction are primarily misusing substances to self-medicate emotional pain caused by trauma.

“Many individuals who develop substance use disorders are also diagnosed with mental disorders, and vice versa,” explains an information page of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.”

“The primary reason individuals use drugs of abuse is due to their immediate psychological effects. Alcohol and other drugs (in addition to rewarding behaviors) change the way individuals feel by producing pleasure (i.e., positive reinforcement) and reducing dysphoria,” wrote Amanda Giordano, Ph.D., in a recent article for Psychology Today. “For individuals with dysregulated stress systems resulting from trauma, drugs of abuse can offer a reprieve from chronic hyperarousal and anxiety. Alcohol, benzodiazepines, opioids, and cannabis products have calming intoxication effects, some of which even serve to slow down the central nervous system.”

Trauma-Informed Care

If trauma is an important driver of addiction, it follows that trauma should be addressed in addiction treatment.

“Trauma-informed care (TIC) acknowledges the need to understand a person’s life experiences in order to deliver effective medical care,” wrote psychiatrist Lantie Jorandby on Psychology Today in July. “It also assumes that trauma has occurred in many of our lives, that it can continue to affect us in powerful and debilitating ways, and that it needs to be considered when we receive mental healthcare.

“Patients with SUD who are experiencing trauma symptoms often come into treatment with an internal fire alarm going off all day long,” wrote Jorandby. “They have trouble relaxing. They have trouble trusting. They don’t sleep well. And they frequently experience panic attacks and nightmares.”

Such symptoms need to be addressed in therapy and all staff at a treatment center should be aware of their significance in order to avoid triggering or re-traumatizing the patient inadvertently.

“The need to address trauma is increasingly viewed as an important component of effective behavioral health service delivery.” stated the US Department of Health and Human Services

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach (2014)

“A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

Integrating knowledge about trauma into therapy allows patients to work on their treatment plan in a calmer state, facilitating better outcomes.

Trauma-informed care “has done so much to transform and inform addiction treatment, and patients with SUD are responding well to it,” wrote Dr. Jorandby. In the TIC environment, patients can feel confident that they:

  • Will be safe while in treatment.
  • Will have a voice in their care.
  • Will benefit from a TIC-trained clinical staff that is collaborating with them
  • Will know that their therapy is always positive, never punitive.

Harmony Foundation has long utilized a holistic approach to healing trauma and addiction. All staff at Harmony have been trained in trauma-informed care. Realizing that addiction is a biopsychosocial and spiritual disease, Harmony’s treatment program promotes physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, empowering patients to embark upon a lifelong journey of recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, or you have questions about our programs, call us today at (970) 432-8075 to get the help needed as soon as possible. Our experienced staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.