Is There a Trauma-Addiction Connection?

Melissa Killeen

Melissa Killeen

Is there a trauma-addiction connection? Adverse childhood experiences (trauma) are well known to significantly increase the risk of psychiatric disorders in adulthood. Ample evidence has shown that childhood trauma endangers the brain’s development, structure and function. Several traumatic experiences could make a person susceptible, later in life, to problems related to memory, judgment, reasoning, and could affect emotional and decision-making skills. Psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and addiction, are also linked to adverse childhood traumatic experiences.

Traumatic life experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect, occur at alarmingly high rates in the United States and is considered a major public health problem. Other examples of traumatic life experiences could be witnessing family violence, parental separation and divorce, experiencing a catastrophic weather event such as Hurricane Katrina, losing your home as a result of a wild fire, moving several times in childhood or going hungry.

The link between traumatic experiences and substance abuse has been well-established. For example, in the National Survey of Adolescents, teens who had experienced physical, or sexual abuse or assault were three times more likely to report they had abused a substance than those without a history of trauma.

In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of the adolescents reported a history of some sort of trauma.

While experiencing a trauma doesn’t guarantee that a person will develop an addiction, research clearly suggests that trauma is a major underlying source of addiction behavior. Founder of and author Michele Rosenthal culled statistics from a report issued by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Department of Veterans Affairs to show the strong correlation between trauma and alcohol addiction:

  • Sources estimate that 25 and 75 percent of people who survive abuse and/or violent experiences develop issues related to alcohol abuse.
  • Accidents, illness or natural disasters translate to between 10 to 33 percent of survivors reporting alcohol abuse.
  • A diagnosis of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) increases the risk of developing alcohol abuse.
  • Female trauma survivors face increased risk for an alcohol-use disorder.
  • Male and female sexual abuse survivors experience a higher rate of alcohol- and drug-use disorders compared to those who have not survived such abuse.
  • 27 percent of veterans in Veterans Administration care diagnosed with PTSD also have Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Similar research linking trauma and addiction exists for other habitual behaviors, including sexually compulsive behavior and eating disorders. Delving deeper into the trauma-addiction connection tells us that addiction is a coping mechanism. Addictions often help reduce the sensation of the overwhelming anxiety, stress and fear that trauma triggers create. Individuals participating in the research confirm that addictions are implemented as an attempt to self-manage (or self-medicate) what comes up for them when unmanageable trauma memories appear. These forms of self-management or self-medication are used as a positive survival instinct, but have very negative consequences. The key is to recognize the use of substances to manage trauma responses and to choose another tool for self-management.

Next week’s post will go further exploring the link of addiction and trauma.

References used in this post:

Mills KL, Teesson M, Ross J, Peters L (2006) Trauma, PTSD, and substance use disorders: findings from the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Well-Being. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2006 Apr;163(4):652-8.,

Public Interest Directorate- Children, Youth, and Families, An American Psychological Association Directorate-Advancing the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives. Activity Summary- August 2012 – August 2013Website:

Kilpatrick DG, Saunders BE, Smith DW.(2003). Youth Victimization: Prevalence and Implications [Electronic]. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Program, National Institute of Justice. Available at:

Michele Rosenthal (2015) Trauma and Addiction: 7 Reasons Your Habit Makes Perfect Sense, Published on March 30, 2015 in Behavioral Health, Living in Recovery, Living with Addiction and at website:


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