Trauma and Substance Abuse

Table of Contents

From the death of a loved one to a natural disaster, trauma can manifest itself in many different ways. Around 70 percent of adults report experiencing some type of traumatic event, which is not a small sector of the population.

Nobody can prevent themselves from experiencing a traumatic event but there are ways to cope and manage trauma. However, when trauma is left untreated, it can lead to serious health complications, often leading individuals down the wrong path of addiction.

Fortunately, help is available for those in need. At No Matter What Recovery, we offer trauma therapy and treatment that includes holistic practices to help manage and cope with symptoms of trauma.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotion evoked by a tragic event like a natural disaster, an accident, or rape. The immediate response is typically characterized by shock and denial.
Long-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives but mental health professionals can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.

A traumatic event may not stand out in a person’s mind as traumatic if it was one of many, leading many to believe they never experienced trauma. As a result, talking to a therapist or psychologist is important for a diagnosis and to better understand your trauma.

How Trauma Affects The Brain

Trauma can impact the brain in different ways from person to person and experience to experience. Someone exposed to spiders (if they have a visceral fear of them) may experience more trauma than someone who was robbed.

In a traumatic situation the brain and body release hormones, endorphins, and neurotransmitters related to stress. Cortisol and norepinephrine being two of the major hormones.

These put our bodies into “fight or flight” mode to help us react to dangerous situations. There are thousands of situations that can put us into this mode, including simple ones like hearing a noise in your house late at night.

However, when the developing brain experiences these feelings, especially for long periods, this trauma can severely impact human development. When brain chemistry is thrown off and your body is focused on survival, development suffers.

This can lead to cognitive delays, stunted growth, memory loss, attention disorders, mental illness, and so much more. One of the most common mental illnesses is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD affects around 3.5 percent of the population, and it has several myths surrounding it that we want to clear up.

Anybody can develop PTSD after a traumatic event. Military personnel, police officers, and firefighters are known for their high rates of PTSD, but they are far from the only ones suffering from it.

Moreover, little is known about who is more likely to develop it. Somebody who experiences a scary but otherwise harmless event may develop PTSD while someone involved in a highly traumatic near-death experience may never show symptoms. 

Secondly, post-traumatic stress disorder is not only flashbacks to a traumatic event. 

The list goes on, and some may experience all of these symptoms while others only experience one or two. PTSD is highly related to the individual, so there are few overarching statements to be made about its symptoms.

A reminder that PTSD is not a sign of weakness by any means. There is no evidence to suggest this, but plenty to the contrary. Again, anybody can develop PTSD after an event they perceive as scary, dangerous, or otherwise traumatic.

It doesn’t even have to be an “event”. For example, someone may have plenty of childhood trauma without one event sticking out in their minds.

Essentially, a long-term experience, such as living in a fearful environment, that is perceived as traumatic may result in PTSD in the same way a battle would for a soldier. Understanding these distinctions is important to understand the condition.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Substance use disorder (SUD) affects one in 10 Americans at some point in their life, and around half of the country knows somebody suffering from it.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

Understanding the signs of addiction and trauma will help you understand what your loved one is experiencing and if they have trauma and addiction. While it isn’t easy to spot on the outside, some common visible signs include:

Signs and symptoms can differ from person to person, as people experience behavioral illnesses differently. If you’re looking for signs to ensure addictions is coinciding, then look for all of the symptoms mentioned above, as well as:

None of these spell out addiction or trauma on their own, but when you see a pattern, it should raise concern.

Addiction and the Brain

Physical addiction is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain that requires supplementation with a given substance.

For example, cocaine (along with plenty of other substances) is very chemically similar to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the compound our brains produce that is responsible for feeling pleasure.

Consequently, when a person abuses cocaine, their brain stops producing dopamine, as it believes it has been flooded with the compound. Thereafter, cocaine use will need to continue for that person to feel pleasure, leading to a physical addiction that worsens over time.

After that, a tolerance builds as people require more and more of the substance to feel that same level of pleasure, leading to a dangerous situation.

Psychological dependence is when a person may believe they need a substance to function properly, whether there’s a physical addiction or not. Dependence is often much more challenging to overcome than physical addiction, as these beliefs tend to be strong.

As a result, substances widely believe to not be addictive can still lead to a strong dependence. Marijuana is a great example of this, where a dependence can still cause the same (or even worse) negative impacts as addiction would, just without (most of) the physical withdrawal symptoms.

Dangers of Self-Medication

One of the most common reasons for addictions to form is known as self-medication, which we will touch upon more shortly. However, we first want to discuss why it’s so dangerous.

When people self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, it often creates a negative feedback loop. If substance abuse is used to escape mental health concerns, mental illnesses may intensify. When that happens, substance use is likely to intensify as a result.

If substance abuse is treated without proper treatment for the mental illness, then you are unlikely to see progress. The same is true if the mental illness is treated without substance abuse, as they both impact each other so significantly.

Unfortunately, this feedback loop often leads to dramatic increases in tolerance, dependence, and therefore, the potential for overdose.

The Link Between Trauma And Addiction

Addiction is overrepresented among those with mental illness, particularly PTSD. Studies have shown between one- and three-quarters of people who experienced a violent traumatic event developed problems with alcohol addiction.

Keep in mind, that’s just alcohol. Self-harm, suicidal ideation, drug addiction, and other concerns are common among those who experience these types of trauma. Let’s talk more in-depth about the factors that link trauma and addiction.


While there is no one cause for someone to self-medicate, there are commonalities among those with histories of trauma. Self-medication can begin with prescribed medication that is later abused, binge drinking that’s carried away, peer pressure, or a host of other reasons.

For those with histories of trauma, this self-medicating is usually a way to suppress unwanted memories, limit severe anxiety, or otherwise escape their mental illness. Moreover, this is the most obvious link between trauma and addiction, but it’s not the only one.

Situational Pressures

Those growing up with trauma often end up spending time with the wrong people, which may lead to pressure from peers to use substances. Not only that, but a traumatic home environment involving an addicted family member may also lead to pressure to use substances, whether as a form of self-medication, experimentation, or pressure to fit in.

Developmental Issues

As we mentioned earlier, what you know as a child is all you know. An unfortunate result of that fact is that early use of substances is far more likely to lead to addiction later in life.

A result of this is that people who report using alcohol before the age of 15 are 50 percent more likely to become alcoholics in their lives.

Not only that, but substance abuse at a young age can lead to worsening mental health conditions, developmental delays, and more problems that could make a person more susceptible to addiction.

Also, teens and adolescents are more susceptible to developing SUD simply because of their brain development. During adolescence, our brains develop our pleasure centers faster than they develop our risk analysis and decision-making abilities, creating another link between childhood trauma and addiction.


It isn’t just escapism that can lead a traumatized person to abuse substances.

SUD is commonly referred to as a “disease of despair” like depression and others. Well, we mentioned before that trauma, specifically for those who develop PTSD, often alters a person’s outlook on life.

When that outlook is affected to the point where people stop caring about their lives, futures, or loved ones, they may feel there is no reason not to seek artificial pleasure from substances.

Trauma And Substance Abuse Treatment

Of course, neither condition can be cured with the wave of a magic wand or by taking a pill. Both mental illnesses and addiction require ongoing treatment and symptom management over time for the greatest effect.

However, the type of trauma treatment is extremely important to improving mental and emotional wellness.  

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Trauma treatment has to occur alongside addiction treatment if it is to be successful. Fortunately, there is dual diagnosis treatment available that offers specialized treatment services for both conditions simultaneously.

Treating the underlying cause of addiction alongside will ensure the longest-lasting benefits and the most significant improvement to a patient’s quality of life.

Inpatient Vs. Outpatient Treatment

Regardless of what you choose, we’ve established that dual diagnosis treatment is critical for successful recovery. However, you may find yourself torn between attending inpatient or outpatient treatment services.

Well, outpatient services like therapy, doctor visits, and support groups are excellent for long-term support and staying on track. The biggest benefit of outpatient treatment is the minimal disruption to your everyday life, as you can continue working and seek treatment on your own time.

However, especially during the early days of recovery, there is a fatal flaw. You will have the ability to relapse and you won’t have access to around-the-clock medical oversight during the detox stage when you are most vulnerable to complications.

Inpatient treatment offers you everything that outpatient services will offer, along with the added benefit of a substance-free, controlled environment. If you are in early recovery or haven’t begun the detox process yet, we highly recommend inpatient services.

Although, that’s not to suggest that outpatient services are not beneficial. We just recommend taking some time off to focus on early recovery and follow it up with ongoing outpatient support.

How To Help Someone With Addiction And Trauma

The sooner an individual receives the treatment the better off they will be in the long run. The longer that an addiction is left untreated, especially when coupled with a mental illness, the more damage will occur and the longer they will stay at risk of serious health complications, including overdose.

As a result, it’s important to act fast if you want to help your loved one, especially if they are in their teens or early twenties. These are critical periods for brain development and the more damage they do, the worse off they will be in the future.

Look For Treatment Options

Ideally, you want to have treatment options available to them prior to intervening. This is because they may agree to seek treatment, but they can always change their minds.

If you limit the amount of time they have to reconsider their decision, the more likely you are to have success.

Find multiple treatment options for them and go over their options if they agree. Remember, inpatient services are the most effective form of treatment, especially when it comes to dual diagnosis treatment.

However, any treatment is better than no treatment, so it’s best to have backups. If your loved one refuses to attend inpatient treatment, then try to push them toward intensive outpatient services, especially during the detox stage. This is best for their own safety and success.

Either way, if you can, try to contact the facility and see if you can verify their insurance beforehand to avoid interruptions.

Start Your Journey Today

While No Matter What Recovery’s focus is on addiction, mental health issues of all kinds matter. It’s important to remember that these issues will remain. Keep learning more and keep fighting for those who need help.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, consider contacting us. Our services are confidential, thorough, and cutting-edge. Nobody should have to fight addiction alone.


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