The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

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Trauma experienced as a child can impact an individual’s life for years to come. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) found that the link between childhood trauma and addiction leading to chronic illness and premature death is significant.

As research continues to grow in the area of addiction rehab, a focus on childhood trauma and addiction has taken the forefront. The circumstances and experiences that a child undergoes shapes their psychological development. Therefore, while genetics and biology play a major role in the brain’s development and addiction, the adaptation response of the brain impacts the structure in both positive and negative ways.

One study in particular showed how childhood abuse may be attributed to certain anomalies in the structure of the brain linked to cognitive, behavioral, and social impairments.  These physiological changes to the brain are clearly seen on neurological scans connected to higher vulnerability to substance abuse disorders.

What is a Co-occurring Disorder? Exploring Trauma and Addiction

When beginning addiction rehab treatment, it is important to understand the likelihood and complexity of what a co-occurring disorder is and its impact. A co-occurring disorder, or dual disorder, is the occurrence of a substance use disorder alongside a mental health disorder. These mental health disorders are generally categorized into three groups: mood-related disorders, anxiety-related disorders, or severe mental illness.

What is a Co-occurring Disorder?

When beginning addiction rehab treatment, it is important to understand the likelihood and complexity of what a co-occurring disorder is and its impact. A co-occurring disorder, or dual disorder, is the occurrence of a substance use disorder along with a mental health disorder. These mental health disorders are generally categorized into three groups: mood-related disorders, anxiety-related disorders, or severe mental illness. 


Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common co-occurring disorder along with other dual diagnosis. It is an example of an anxiety-related disorder. Those with this diagnosis are three times more likely to have a substance abuse disorder. PTSD is the result of a traumatic experiences in a person’s life and 8 out of 100 Americans will have this diagnosis.


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is another co-occurring disorder often linked with trauma and substance abuse. It is an anxiety disorder brought on by unreasonable fear and anxiety as a result of repeated thoughts. It is characterized by compulsive activities and repetitive actions like constantly rearranging belongings or continually washing hands. Roughly one-quarter of people with OCD have a dual diagnosis of substance abuse. The earlier OCD symptoms develop, the more likely the individual will become addicted to a substance later in life.

Bipolar Disorder:

This mental health condition is a depression-related disorder. It is also referred to as “manic depression.” This condition causes intense mood swings leading to emotional highs and lows. While genetics and chemical imbalances can cause bipolar disorder, traumatic life events are also a risk factor. It is not uncommon for those with bipolar disorder to attempt self-medication through drugs or alcohol. There is also the possibility of substance-induced bipolar disorder resulting from frequent drug use causing changes in the brain.


This condition is categorized as a severe mental illness where the individual is unable to differentiate between reality and imagination. This condition has a genetic and chemical component. Environmental factors may also play a role in its development. Roughly 50 percent of those with a schizophrenia diagnosis have some history of substance abuse. This is yet another way of self-medicating for these individuals in an effort to relieve anxiety and depression.

Integrated Treatment for Trauma and Addiction

Unresolved trauma is a major contributing factor to substance abuse. It is reported that two-thirds of adult addicts have experienced some form of traumatic experience as a child, whether physical or sexual.  Success in alcohol and drug rehab treatment is founded on addressing the underlying root causes of ongoing substance abuse.

In the past, it was common for childhood trauma and drug addiction to be treated separately.

Once the evidence that unresolved trauma and addiction are in fact deeply connected became widely known, understanding how to treat trauma and substance abuse simultaneously became a priority. Trauma-focused drug rehab treatment spread and many drug treatment centers created programs to address both issues at the same time.

In both inpatient rehab and outpatient rehab programming, clients suffering from co-occurring disorders will learn coping tools and mechanisms using various addiction and mental health therapy modalities. These include grief or loss counseling, peer support groups, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), desensitization work (exposure therapy), pharmacotherapy, holistic practices, and coping skill development. An individual may use all or just some of these as part of their multi-faceted substance abuse treatment program. At Avenues Recovery, once a client successfully undergoes detox from drinking or drugs, a personalized treatment plan is created to address any issues contributing to their specific battle with drug addiction. This gives the client the best chance to turn his or her incoming stint at inpatient and outpatient addiction rehab into a lasting successful recovery.

Addiction and Trauma Recovery Integration Model

The Addiction and Trauma Recovery Integration Model (ATRIUM) is a recovery model that can be used by groups or individuals alongside their mental health professionals of choice. It is a 12-session recovery model used in a wide variety of settings. The goal is to bring together all resources and professionals available to provide support and help for trauma and healing. Resources used in the ATRIUM model include peer support, psychoeducation, interpersonal skills training, creative expression, meditation, spirituality, and community action.


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends 6 key principles:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency
  3. Peer Support
  4. Collaboration and Mutuality
  5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice
  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

Trauma and Addiction Statistics

Trauma and addiction statistics show staggering and eye-opening risk factors associated with co-occurring disorders developing. The ACE study showed that for every occurrence of adversity or trauma, the likelihood of substance abuse increased two to four times. Along those same lines, those with five or more were seven to ten times more likely to be addicted to drugs.

The connection between childhood trauma and addiction occurs across a wide range of populations, genders, traumas, and types of substance abuse. 75 percent of men and women in substance abuse treatment centers reported a history of trauma or abuse. Studies also show that 75 percent of teens addicted to a substance developed an addiction post-trauma exposure.

Childhood Trauma and Alcoholism

One-quarter to three-quarters of individuals who have experienced violent traumatic experiences also have concerning rates of alcohol use. Accidents and illnesses in both childhood and adulthood can be trauma events proven to lead to alcoholism.

Sexual abuse and child molestation are heavily connected to eventual drug dependence and addiction. Adolescents that have been sexually assaulted are 4.5 times more likely to have an alcohol abuse disorder.

Considering Drug Rehab for Dual Diagnosis

Those who have experienced childhood or adult traumas should consider trauma-informed drug rehab treatment. The link between ACES and addiction has been proven. Anyone living with mental health conditions or a substance abuse disorder as a result of trauma, should know that effective treatment options are available to them. There is no time at which it is too late to seek out professional help or a drug treatment center to address substance abuse disorder and concurring mental illness.

Recover From Trauma and Addiction at Avenues Recovery

Have you or a loved one experienced trauma and are now struggling with addiction? Don’t hesitate to contact Avenues Recovery, where a trained professional is ready to discuss the available treatment options with you. At Avenues, we believe that your past doesn’t determine your future. No matter what might have happened or where you are now, it’s never too late to set your life back on the right course. Reach out to us and begin your journey to recovery today.

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