The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

Mental health specialists long suspected there were links between trauma and addiction. Just as traumatic experiences have an impact on other avenues of mental health, addiction can arise as a response to trauma symptoms. 

In this article, Cottonwood Tucson examines the connections between trauma and addiction and how trauma-informed substance use disorder treatment is making an impact. 

What Is Trauma, Exactly?

Trauma is a complex and deeply personal experience that occurs when an individual is exposed to a physically or emotionally intense event or series of events. Traumatic experiences generally involve physical harm or the threat of physical harm/threat to life or serious emotional or mental impact. They may include all of these elements. The effects of trauma are not imagined. Trauma affects the brain and behavior measurably.

Examples of potentially traumatic events include:

  • Being in a serious car accident.
  • War, live combat experience. 
  • Experiencing physical or sexual abuse.
  • Emotional or mental abuse, gaslighting, etc. 

Traumatic events can have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. In the context of mental health and addiction treatment, trauma often refers to experiences that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Addiction and trauma often coincide when the trauma survivor is seeking temporary relief from their symptoms and/or lacks effective healthy coping mechanisms. 

The Impact of Trauma on Mental Health and Well-Being

Trauma can lead to serious long-term consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other mental health disorders. It is essential to recognize that trauma is not just about the events themselves but also about the individual’s emotional and psychological response to these events.

Trauma survivors are not always aware that traumatic experiences are responsible for their symptoms. They simply know they don’t like the way they feel and desperately want to change how they feel. This can lead to substance use or mis

Adverse responses to trauma, including substance use or addiction are never the fault of the survivor. It’s important to never blame or shame that person for these things. It’s not only unfair, it’s also counterproductive and not helpful. You cannot successfully “shame someone into sobriety.” The good news is that trauma-informed treatment has grown in popularity and effective trauma treatment is more available than ever before. 

The effects of trauma:

  • Do not resolve themselves and should not be ignored. 
  • Often persists for many years after the traumatic events have passed.
  • Can be mitigated or resolved with trauma-specific treatment and coping tools. 

How Does Trauma Relate To Addiction or Substance Use?

While trauma doesn’t directly cause substance misuse or addiction, the two phenomena are often associated with one another. Trauma survivors may grow up in a household where they see adults drinking and using drugs as a means to cope with stress or discomfort. In that respect, it can be learned behavior, at least in part. 

Other trauma survivors may succumb to addiction in the pursuit of relief from trauma symptoms like anxiety, PTSD, depression, or panic attacks. According to several studies, somewhere between 59-70% of people who experience significant childhood trauma, aka Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) develop substance use disorders as adolescents or adults. 

Whether someone develops a substance use disorder as a learned behavior, abusing a prescribed medication, or simply looking for a way to cope with challenging symptoms — the connection between trauma and addiction is clear. This is why trauma awareness is crucial in a mental health and addiction treatment setting. Recognizing the signs of trauma so they can be addressed goes a long way toward building sustainable recovery for trauma survivors with addiction. 

How addiction enters the lives of trauma survivors:

  • Learned behavior from seeing adults or authority figures cope by using or drinking. 
  • Desperation in seeking relief from the emotional repercussions of unresolved trauma. 
  • Misusing a prescribed medication, such as an antianxiety medication or pain meds. 

Treating Trauma and Addiction at Cottonwood Tucson

In addition to our overarching approach which embodies trauma awareness, Cottonwood Tucson employs some specialized treatment modalities that are especially effective for trauma. 

Some of our trauma-focused treatment modalities include: 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): 

EMDR was developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. This unique type of trauma treatment has been proven especially effective at relieving the symptoms of PTSD and other trauma-related conditions. EMDR also has the advantage of being fast-acting compared to most other treatments. Most EMDR  participants begin to experience some relief within just a few weeks. 


Sometimes called Heart Rhythm coherence feedback, HeartMath is a type of biofeedback therapy that helps trauma survivors learn how to control their body’s response to stressful stimuli (the so-called “fight or flight” response. Biofeedback is a category of treatment methods that help people visualize their bodily responses by using instrumentation that displays heart rate and other relevant metrics so they can see the results in real-time.

Somatic Experiencing Therapy: 

Somatic Experiencing Therapy is unique in that it uses the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, which is the very source of many anxiety symptoms. This mode of therapy helps trauma survivors learn to process their traumatic experiences and is especially helpful in helping people cope with triggers. This is a powerful form of treatment because triggers are so often where the most troubling symptoms begin 

Wim Hof Breathing Method: 

The Wim Hof Breathing Method was developed by Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof, known as “The Iceman” for his ventures into icy arctic waters. Originally developed as a means to control his physiological response to temperature extremes, it evolved into a powerful stress reduction technique. This technique helps oxygenate blood and lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. It also induces a relaxation response, similar to the effects of Transcendental Meditation.  

Trauma-Aware Addiction Treatment in Arizona

As the premier mental health treatment center in the American Southwest for over a quarter-century, Cottonwood Tucson remains on the cutting edge of substance abuse treatment innovations. Our private residential treatment program is situated on 35 picturesque acres in the foothills of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.  

Trauma-informed addiction care has been part of our evidence-based mental health treatment for many years. Of course, addressing the root causes of trauma and helping people process trauma and develop healthy coping tools is critical, whether substance abuse is a part of the picture or not. 

If you or a person you love is struggling with the effects of trauma or addiction, we’re here to help. You and your loved ones deserve the type of expert, innovative care that only Cottonwood Tucson can deliver. Let’s begin a conversation about how we can help, today. 
Call us anytime at  (888) 433-1069.

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