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What Role Does Trauma Play in the Development of Addiction?

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Addiction is a public health concern that impacts individuals of all ages and backgrounds. In the United States, approximately 61.2 million individuals, 12 years of age or older, reported that they engaged in the use of an illicit substance in 2021. (1) That same year, approximately 46.3 million individuals were diagnosed with a substance use disorder. (2) Substance use disorders were highest amongst those between the ages of 18 and 25. (3) Understanding the causes and risk factors of addiction, such as experiencing a traumatic event, can help in reducing those negatively impacted by substance use.

At Guardian Recovery, we offer evidence-based treatment options for those experiencing trauma, addiction, and substance use. With a variety of care levels, such as residential inpatientpartial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient, we are dedicated to providing a wide range of treatment programs. Our licensed clinicians can help you, or a loved one, develop the necessary psychoeducation and adaptive coping techniques. Contact us today to begin your recovery journey on the guardian path.

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How Does Trauma Affect Brain Function & Development?

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as an emotional response that occurs after experiencing a terrible or harmful event. (4) All individuals respond differently to traumatic events. Depending on the severity of the trauma and how long an individual is experiencing symptoms, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD may be given.

Experiencing a traumatic event can trigger stress chemicals to be released into the brain, which can cause damage over time. Experiencing feelings of stress for a long period of time can cause the brain to rewire itself, impacting things such as emotions and brain development. (5)

Why Do Individuals With Traumatic Experiences Turn To Substance Use?

There are different factors that can impact why an individual who experiences trauma begins engaging in substance use. Research has found that individuals who experience at least 4 traumatic events are more likely to develop an alcohol or other drug related substance use disorder. (6)

Those experiencing PTSD may develop the following symptoms:

  • Avoidance – Not wanting to be around others, places, or things that reminds them of the traumatic event.
  • Reliving the event – Experiencing flashbacks, distressing thoughts, or nightmares.
  • Reactivity – Having difficulties falling or staying asleep, feeling on edge, being easily startled, and experiencing mood outbursts.
  • Negative mood – Experiencing feelings of guilt, poor self-esteem, memory impairments, and no longer being interested in past enjoyable activities.

Those experiencing PTSD may use substances as a way to help cope or self-soothe their unwanted symptoms. Substances only provide temporary relief from negative symptoms, may heighten withdrawal symptoms, and can make it more difficult to stop engaging in substance use.

What Types of Trauma Can Lead To Substance Use?

There are different types of traumatic events that an individual can experience that may lead to the development of substance use.

Types of traumatic events include: (7)

  • Physical Assault
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Sexual Assault
  • Domestic Violence
  • Parental Neglect
  • Bullying
  • Natural Disasters
  • Accidents
  • Illness

Childhood Trauma & Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Experiencing trauma as a child can lead to the development of disabilities, diseases, social problems, and early mortality. Research has found that those with childhood trauma experienced PTSD symptoms for longer periods of time when compared to those who have not experienced childhood trauma. (8) Substance use disorders and psychiatric mental health disorders have a high co-occurrence rate. In 2020, approximately 12 percent of the total United States population, 12 years of age or older, experienced mental health and substance use disorders simultaneously. (9)

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Prescription Drug Dependence Caused by Mental or Physical Trauma

The misuse of prescription medications occurs when an individual takes a dose other than how it is prescribed, takes someone else’s prescription, or takes medication to reach a euphoric or calming feeling. (10) In 2021, approximately 14.3 million individuals engaged in the misuse of prescription medication. (11) Prescription medications are often prescribed to help reduce or minimize pain. Those who have experienced a traumatic event are more likely to take more medications than they are prescribed, leading to a higher chance of developing an addiction.

Is Trauma Considered a Risk Factor for Substance Abuse?

There are various risk factors that can increase the likelihood of an individual experiencing a substance use disorder.

Common risk factors associated with the development of substance use disorders include: (12)

  • Having a family history of substance use.
  • Having positive feelings towards substances.
  • Experiencing conflict with close friends and family.
  • Having a low socioeconomic status.
  • Experiencing emotional distress.
  • Experiencing traumatic life events.

Experiencing a traumatic life event is one of the main risk factors that can lead to the development of addiction. Approximately 66 percent of individuals who experience a substance use disorder have also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. (13)

How Is Trauma & Mental Health Treated in Addiction Treatment Programs?

For those experiencing both trauma and addiction, attending a treatment facility that can target both disorders is the most beneficial way to overcome them. Depending on the substance use and severity, medically supervised detox may be the first, initial step in a treatment plan. Research has found that the combination of therapeutic interventions and medication assisted treatment are effective in treating comorbid mental health and substance use disorders.

At Guardian Recovery, we offer the following therapeutic interventions and modalities:

Dual Diagnosis Treatment & Holistic Care

At Guardian Recovery, we offer dual diagnosis treatment for those experiencing substance use and mental health disorders at the same time. Additionally, we offer holistic treatment options that have been found to be effective in the treatment of substance use and mental health disorders.

Our holistic treatment options include:

How Does Trauma Affect Recovery & Aftercare?

Those who have experienced trauma may not feel safe around others or in their own body. They may also experience emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, and denial. All of this can affect an individual’s recovery process and long-term journey. Of those who receive substance use treatment, approximately two-thirds relapse at some point. (14) At Guardian Recovery, we provide relapse prevention training and aftercare planning to continue to aid individuals maintain their sobriety following their discharge from a treatment program.

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If you or someone you love have experienced a traumatic event and are experiencing uncontrollable substance use, Guardian Recovery is here to provide the necessary treatment and healing options needed for a sober lifestyle. We understand how substance use and trauma can impact an individual’s life, but you are not alone. Contact us today and one of our Treatment Advisors can help guide you through our simple admissions process. A free, no obligation insurance benefits check can be provided upon your request. Start your road to recovery with Guardian Recovery.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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