The Nexus of Trauma and Addiction

Friday, December 22, 2017
Michael Rass

The link between exposure to trauma and substance abuse disorders has been well established. “Traumatic life experience, such as physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect, occurs at alarmingly high rates and is considered a major public health problem in the United States,” wrote Lamya Khoury et. al. in a 2010 study on the correlation between substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many other studies show as well that there is high comorbidity between PTSD with substance abuse disorders.

“Studies of drug addicts repeatedly find extraordinarily high percentages of childhood trauma of various sorts, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” writes Canadian physician Gabor Maté in his seminal addiction study In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

And it is not only childhood trauma. According to PTSD United, 70 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. 20 percent of them suffer from PTSD. Many of those individuals turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to numb their pain and in the hope of gaining some measure of control in their lives.

In Hooked, a short guide to the mechanics of addiction, Arwen Podesta, M.D., offers the simple formula: Biology (genetics and epigenetics) + Stress (especially trauma) + Drugs = Risk of Addiction. If addiction runs in the family and people are traumatized by events in their life, the risk of developing a substance use disorder increases significantly.

While many people experience trauma at some point in their life, many don’t understand or acknowledge the trauma. That means, it goes frequently untreated, leading to hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and in severe cases, PTSD. In too many cases trauma also leads to addiction. Instead of seeking treatment, many choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Especially men, who often perceive sharing their emotions as a sign of weakness and tend to hide their feelings. This is not a healthy attitude when it comes to trauma and addiction.

Because of the strong correlation, trauma-informed care is an important part of alcohol or drug rehab. North Bay Recovery Center has helped many men who developed addictions as a result of painful traumatic events in their lives. Patients receive treatment not only for the addiction itself, but also for co-occurring conditions such as trauma. This is consistent with North Bay's approach to treatment which entails treating not just the addiction, but the underlying causes that contribute to the substance use itself.