How Does Trauma Relate to Substance Abuse?

Updated on 01/25/24

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT

Research indicates that people who experience childhood trauma and traumatic life events are at a higher risk for the development of substance use disorder (SUD). The opposite is also true: those with SUD are more likely to experience traumatic events.

Why are trauma and substance abuse so closely related? Is there a chance that everyone who experiences trauma will become addicted to drugs or alcohol? Let’s look at the co-occurrence of trauma and substance use disorders along with the best treatment options for them.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a deeply distressing event. A traumatic event can be defined as anything specific to a person that causes psychological distress. This can range from car accidents, abuse, natural disasters or death.

A more severe form of a trauma response is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a psychiatric condition that may occur when a person has been exposed to a traumatic event. For the diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms must last for one month or longer and cause significant disruption to daily living. People with PTSD experience intense disturbing feelings or thoughts that are related to the traumatic event(s).

Symptoms of PTSD

  • Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of the event
  • Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, including locations or people
  • Inability to recall information about the event
  • Irritability or hostility
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Social isolation
  • Sleep disturbances, nightmares or insomnia

3 Types of Trauma

  • Acute trauma occurs from a single event.
  • Chronic trauma is repeated and prolonged trauma, such as abuse.
  • Complex trauma is multiple exposures to a variety of traumatic events.

Co-Occurring PTSD and Substance Abuse

Trauma serves as a risk factor for almost all substance use disorders. Studies have found that people with SUDs are more likely to experience traumatic events than those without SUD. The relationship between trauma and SUDs is multifactorial.

Abuse is one of the most common forms of trauma. Both men and women who have experienced sexual abuse have a higher chance of developing alcohol abuse or a substance use disorder. People who experience physical or chronic pain after a traumatic event have a higher chance of developing a drug use problem.

One of the most well-known theories around the relationship between trauma and SUDs is the self-medication theory of substance abuse.

Self-Medication Hypothesis

One theory posits that people develop substance abuse issues from trying to cope with trauma and pain. Self-medication may occur in the context of self-regulation, when a person has difficulty in expressing painful feelings.

People may learn that different substances may relieve or alter their physical or psychological pain. Drugs may produce a euphoria that relaxes the mind and body; the user may develop a love of this sensation.

This develops into a need to use the substance whenever uncomfortable feelings become too intense to handle. A person may use substances when they want to numb their feelings completely.

Treatment Options for Dual-Diagnosis

Both trauma and substance abuse significantly impact the brain. To truly heal and recover, both disorders need to be treated professionally. Individuals with co-occurring disorders should seek an addiction treatment center that treats patients with a dual diagnosis also known as co-occurring disorders.

Although there is no single treatment that works best for a dual-diagnosis of PTSD and substance abuse disorder, studies have shown that an integrative approach is most successful.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT can help people with PTSD and SUD work through painful memories. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that acknowledges the importance of how thoughts and emotions affect behaviors. Because many people with substance use disorders use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, learning healthy coping strategies to replace drug use has shown to be effective.

Inpatient SUD Treatment

To properly and safely recover from SUDs, professional help through inpatient or outpatient services may be needed. Inpatient treatment, also known as residential treatment, requires a person to temporarily reside in a treatment facility that provides 24-hour care.

Inpatient treatment centers often assist with the detox and withdrawal processes, which should be assisted by medically trained staff. Many Inpatient centers also offer therapy services, group support and other treatment options specific to their programs that can help treat a dual-diagnosis.

Outpatient SUD Treatment

There are several types of outpatient treatment options. The most common forms are day programs, continuing care groups and partial hospitalization. Outpatient treatment is best used for people with less severe cases and who are not potentially dangerous to themselves or others.

After the completion of inpatient rehabilitation for a dual diagnosis, continuing care through outpatient services is important for preventing relapse or re-emergence of symptoms. Outpatient therapy serves as a bridge between intensive inpatient care and independent daily living.

There are many resources available to help those struggling with addiction, and Cliffside Malibu is one of them. Contact Cliffside Malibu today, a luxury treatment facility in beautiful Malibu, California, for information about recovery at available treatment options at (855) 403-5641.