The Connection Between Trauma and Drug Addiction

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Traumatic events can shape you. Whether it’s a childhood experience or trauma you faced in adult life, exposure to distressing situations can change how you view yourself and how you see the world.

For many people, trauma is the root cause of addiction. SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) reports that 46 million U.S. adults addicted to drugs or alcohol. According to National Council for Wellbeing, 223 million U.S. adults have experienced at least one traumatic event. This means there is every chance that you know someone impacted by trauma and drug addiction or trauma and alcoholism.

This guide examines the connection between trauma and addiction, from the link between childhood trauma and addiction to substance abuse and trauma associated with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or physical health conditions. Healing from addiction and trauma is perfectly possible, and we’ll show you how to connect with an addiction and trauma therapist or a trauma and addiction recovery center like Ohio Community Health.

Top 3 Forms of Trauma That Lead to Addiction

Many forms of trauma can trigger substance abuse and addiction. Three of the most common examples are:

  1. Addiction and childhood trauma: Childhood trauma may include abuse – physical, emotional, or sexual – neglect, or growing up in a household with caregivers battling addictions or mental health conditions. Childhood trauma can result in feelings of low self-worth, shame, and a lack of safety, all of which can drive people to use addictive substances as a coping mechanism.
  2. Addiction and PTSD: In addition to addiction childhood trauma, PTSD is also associated with the development of substance abuse and addiction. This mental health disorder may develop after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event like combat, sexual assault, or a natural disaster. Those with PTSD often struggle with intrusive thoughts and episodes of anxiety or depression, sometimes prompting substance use as a means of coping with these symptoms.
  3. Addiction and accidents or physical trauma: Sudden accidents, injuries, or illnesses can be traumatic and lead to chronic pain, disability, or impaired functioning. Those with chronic pain may be prescribed opioid-based painkillers. Although effective, opioids are Schedule II controlled substances with a high potential for abuse and addiction. Additionally, physical trauma can also result in emotional trauma, which can lead to substance use as a coping mechanism.


How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction

SAMHSA reports that two-thirds of children will experience at least one traumatic event.

Some events associated with childhood trauma include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Violence in the community
  • Bullying at school
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Natural disasters
  • Becoming a refugee
  • Experiencing war
  • Life-threatening accidents and illnesses (12% of children with physical health conditions and 19% of children who sustain injuries will develop PTSD)

A combined study conducted by CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Kaiser Permanente resulted in the publication of the ACE (adverse childhood experiences) study. Data from 17,000 U.S. children indicate that ACEs are heavily correlated with future events. Researchers associated adverse childhood experiences with the following:

  • Risk behaviors like substance abuse or unsafe sex
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Lack of education limiting career prospects
  • Mental health issues
  • Suicide
  • Premature death

When children are abused or feel abandoned, when they are damaged or scarred or by their adverse childhood experiences, they often seek coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol. Research shows that unaddressed ACEs frequently lead adolescents to experiment with alcohol, increasing the risk of substance abuse in adulthood.

Children who experience ACEs are more likely to smoke cigarettes and at heightened risk of prescription medication abuse.

Studies show that a child is up to four times more likely to use illicit narcotics or develop drug dependence as an adult with each ACE experienced.

Unresolved Trauma and Addiction

Some of the ways unresolved trauma can contribute to addiction include:

  • Self-medicating: People often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of trauma, from anxiety and depression to physical and emotional pain.
  • Coping mechanisms: Substance use can become a coping mechanism for some people unable to manage the emotional pain and distress caused by trauma in healthier ways.
  • Avoidance: Substance use can become a way to avoid or numb the emotional pain and distress associated with trauma.
  • Triggers: Certain triggers can evoke memories of trauma and increase the likelihood of using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope.
  • Social isolation: Some people may isolate themselves from others in an attempt to cope with unresolved trauma, oftentimes triggering substance use as a way to manage the resulting feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Effective treatment for addiction and unresolved trauma requires a holistic and coordinated approach that addresses both issues simultaneously. This may include evidence-based therapies like CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), and trauma-focused therapy. Peer support groups and medication-assisted treatment may also be beneficial. By addressing the underlying trauma, it is possible to develop healthier coping mechanisms and achieve lasting recovery from addiction and past traumatic events.

Trauma and Addiction Statistics

Addiction and Trauma Recovery Services

Addiction and trauma recovery services are essential resources for individuals who have experienced trauma and developed addiction as a coping mechanism. These services are designed to help people recover from the effects of trauma and addiction and develop healthier coping mechanisms and lifestyles.

Some common addiction and trauma recovery services include:

  • Substance abuse treatment programs: Substance abuse treatment programs involve inpatient or outpatient therapy to help people overcome addiction and learn healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Trauma-focused therapy: This type of therapy is designed to help people process and heal from the effects of trauma. Trauma-focused therapy can include techniques including CBT, EMDR, and other trauma-focused interventions.
  • Support groups: Peer support groups like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous), and other 12-step and non-12-step programs may provide support and guidance for those looking to move beyond trauma and addiction.
  • Holistic therapies: Holistic therapies such as yoga, meditation, art therapy, and acupuncture can help people manage stress, reduce anxiety, and develop healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Dual diagnosis treatment: Dual diagnosis treatment programs are designed to help those with co-occurring mental health disorders like PTSD and addiction. These programs can provide integrated treatment to address both conditions simultaneously.

Co-occurring Disorders Treatment

Co-occurring disorders, also known as dual diagnosis, refer to the presence of both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder at the same time. Co-occurring disorders are commonplace, affecting 17 million U.S. adults in 2020, according to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

Effective treatment for co-occurring disorders typically involves an integrated approach that addresses both the substance use disorder and the mental health disorder simultaneously. Some key components of effective co-occurring disorder treatment include:

  • Comprehensive assessment: A comprehensive initial assessment is vital to identify both the substance use disorder and the mental health disorder and determine the best treatment plan.
  • Integrated treatment: Integrated treatment involves addressing both the substance use disorder and the mental health disorder simultaneously. This may involve a combination of medication, therapy, and other evidence-based treatments.
  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment): MAT involves the use of medication to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with substance use disorder. MAT can also be an effective treatment option for individuals with co-occurring disorders.
  • Evidence-based therapies: Evidence-based therapies like CBT, DBT (dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and trauma-focused therapy can be effective for treating substance use disorders and mental health disorders.
  • Support groups: Support groups can provide those with co-occurring disorders with a community of peers who understand their struggles from lived experience and can offer support and guidance.
  • Holistic therapies: Holistic therapies can effectively supplement science-backed treatment for dual diagnosis.


PTSD and Drug Addiction

There is a strong association between PTSD and addiction. According to APA (American Psychological Association), up to 50% of those seeking treatment for substance use disorder (drug addiction) also meet the criteria for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

While PTSD has traditionally been linked to combat veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder can affect people from all demographics. Research indicates that one in eleven U.S. citizens will suffer from PTSD at some stage in life.

When substance use disorder and mental health conditions like PTSD present at the same time, this is known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.

One of the most common unhealthy responses to experiencing a traumatic effect is to rely on alcohol or drugs as a temporary coping mechanism. Unfortunately, self-medication will do nothing to address the cause of this issue. Over time, self-medicating is likely to worsen both conditions, and also to complicate treatment. If a loved one witnesses or experiences a traumatic event, look for signs of regular intoxication or social withdrawal in the aftermath, both possible indicators that a dual diagnosis is developing.

After someone experiences trauma, the natural production of endorphins in the brain decreases. Endorphins are brain chemicals associated with mood. Individuals with PTSD developing often find that using addictive substances causes an increase in endorphin production, balancing out the insufficiency of these feel-good chemicals.

Many people self-medicating to alleviate the disturbing symptoms of PTSD find that tolerance, dependence, and addiction to the substance develop. Not only will self-medication not cure PTSD, but it can also introduce new problems in the form of substance use disorder.

Methods of Treatment for Trauma and Substance Abuse

All cases of co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse are unique, meaning the most effective dual diagnosis treatment will always be highly personalized. Integrated treatment is proven more effective than treating each condition in isolation.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment at Ohio Community Health

At Ohio Community Health, we can help you address the causes of trauma and fight back against addiction to alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs.

We specialize in the dual diagnosis treatment of addictions and mental health conditions like PTSD, enabling you to unpack both conditions simultaneously.

Intensive outpatient treatment programs provide you with a flexible and affordable pathway to ongoing sobriety. Benefit from individualized care that combines evidence-based treatment with holistic therapies for a whole-body approach to addiction and trauma recovery. Call admissions today at (877) 679-2132.

Table of Contents

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn