Why Trauma Often Leads to Addiction

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Trauma leads to Addiction

Mental health is a growing, and possibly even trendy, subject in our society recently. Words and phrases such as trauma, PTSD, stress, and addiction are often used in conversations without a true understanding of them and how they relate to one another.

However, the links between trauma and stress to substance use addiction are not insignificant and understanding how they affect one another can be instrumental in recovery. Before we dive into how one of the above can lead to another, let’s define the terms:

  • Stress at the most basic level is the body’s reaction to physical, mental or emotional pressure, typically when overwhelmed.
  • Trauma can come in many forms and is defined as an intensely distressing or disturbing experience.
  • PTSD is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock.


Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.

Trauma and Chronic Stress

When a person experiences a traumatic event, and doesn’t seek healing or treatment, the effects of the trauma don’t typically just “go away.” In fact, usually they present themselves in the affected individuals life in other ways commonly associated with signs of stress. If untreated for too long, this can lead to a dysregulated nervous system, making the individual more vulnerable to addictive behaviors as an attempt to either mask their feelings or gain some sense of control over their lives.

Not surprisingly, the individual more often than not has other situations in their lives that they have to deal with daily. Added pressures such as high-stress jobs, financial difficulties, challenging relationships, and more are taking a toll on their stress levels daily. These scenarios, mixed with their untreated trauma, can all heighten chronic stress.

Signs and symptoms of chronic stress

  • Irritability, which can be extreme
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Rapid, disorganized thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Digestive problems
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feeling helpless
  • Perceived loss of control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Nervousness
  • Frequent infections or illnesses

PTSD, Self-Medicating and Addiction

PTSD as mentioned before is a result of persistent stress stemming from some form of trauma that an individual has experienced. Unfortunately, that trauma often leads to addiction. Growing up in a violent neighborhood, being the victim of a crime, having a close friend or family member die young, and endless other scenarios can leave a person with deep scars that have detrimental consequences if not addressed.

The traumatic events themselves are not the only things that shape you, however. The way you respond to trauma—whether you bottle it up, embrace the hurt and use it as a driving force to achieve your goals, or even seek healing—is a key factor in how you continue responding to events in life, good or bad.

For individuals with PTSD, avoidance is a common manifestation and triggers can be situational or emotional.

Some Common Triggers of PTSD 

  • Being around people who remind you of the traumatic event, such as a person who looks exactly like the perpetrator of the crime you experienced or a person who talks about the trauma frequently
  • Thinking about the event
  • Watching a movie or television program about the event
  • Reading or hearing a news story about the event
  • Having a close call with a person who reminds you of the trauma
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Being in a place where the event occurred
  • Being in a situation where you are not in control


One common form of avoidance seen from people suffering with PTSD is often self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, which can lead to addiction. The use of drugs or alcohol is to escape from the flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and depression – they drink to feel happy and attempt to enjoy themselves.

However, the benefits of drug/alcohol use are usually short-lived, and often magnify issues for PTSD sufferers. They may become more violent and aggressive, depression may become worse, and feelings of anxiety and fear may increase with the use of drugs or alcohol. To cope with the worsening feelings, users typically increase their intake of alcohol or drugs, leading again to addiction.

“It becomes difficult to deal with everyday life because you have hid your soul in a dark corner so it doesn’t have to face the dangerous world of the Trauma. Without your soul, you are only half a person, a machine who is constantly running from reality.” – Amy Oestreicher


The good news is that trauma, chronic stress and PTSD can be addressed in addiction recovery, specifically in programs with co-occurring mental disorder treatment approaches. Getting to the route of the addiction, essentially treating the stress and trauma, is what ultimately can help with the addictive behaviors.

Examples of that type of treatment can include practicing mindfulness activities such as meditation and breathing exercises – these are common strategies to recover from chronic stress. People can also have a support system composed of family and friends, as well as a counselor or a psychiatrist if needed.

A psychiatrist can prescribe medication to reduce stress. A counselor can help a person explore the causes of their stressors in order to recognize them and find a healthy coping mechanism. The earlier a person seeks help or treatment, the quicker their recovery may be.

PTSD & Trauma Treatment at Emerge Healing Center

It’s recommended that people with a diagnosis of PTSD and substance abuse receive treatment to best manage their symptoms and harmful coping mechanisms like using drugs and alcohol. If you or someone you know is suffering from trauma and PTSD, contact us today to learn more about our PTSD Treatment in Atlanta, and regain a sense of peace and normalcy on your path to mental wellness.

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