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Addiction and Trauma: An Essential Link

“Before you pass judgment on one who is self-destructing, it’s important to remember they usually aren’t trying to destroy themselves. They’re trying to destroy something inside that doesn’t belong.”

These words from J.M. Storm remind us that psychological trauma and addiction go hand in hand. When people are suffering from unhealed mental and emotional pain, they’ll often turn to substances for relief.

According to a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded study:

“A history of trauma … is [very] common among women in drug abuse treatment. The reviewed studies show that from 55 percent to 99 percent of these women reported a history of physical or sexual trauma. Most of the trauma occurred before age 18 and was commonly related to repetitive childhood physical or sexual assault.”

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) Day takes place on September 29, so now is the time to share this list of seven things you need to know about trauma and addiction:

Trauma is subjective.

While the medical definition of trauma involves physical injury, the psychological definition of trauma is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.”

When it comes to mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma, your perception is the one that matters. Not your parents’ perception, or your siblings’, or your peers’. Just yours.

If you thought that something was shocking and upsetting, then it was.

Trauma is linked to the development of myriad mental health issues.

Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder … trauma is a significant risk factor in the development of all of these mental health conditions.

Going through a traumatic experience leads to physiological changes; when you live in fear for a prolonged period, your brain chemistry is altered and you’re more likely to struggle with mental health concerns.

There is a strong connection between trauma and addiction.

Childhood trauma and addiction are definitively linked.

For example, did you know that individuals who score high on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire are five times more likely to become alcoholics, and up to 46 times more likely to inject drugs? It’s true.

(Source: The Kaiser Permanente and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.)

Why is there such a significant connection here? Think about it this way: people abuse drugs as a way to mitigate their mental and emotional suffering.

If you’re dealing with a lot of unhealed trauma, then you also have a tremendous amount of unprocessed mental and emotional pain … and you’re more likely to use as an attempt to cope.

You can have a “great childhood” and still struggle with trauma.

You can be fortunate enough to grow up in a safe, prosperous neighborhood with a loving family and still have deeply distressing experiences.

Even people with wonderful lives have trauma, but often we see people who are ashamed because they grew up in physical comfort and are struggling with deep mental and emotional pain.

Will your past hurts look different from those of someone who grew up in dire poverty? Yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean that your mental and emotional hurts don’t matter, or that it isn’t important to heal them.

When one person heals from the pain of their past, it makes the world a kinder and more loving place for everyone.

It’s possible to repress painful, traumatic memories.

But the good news is that if you want to heal, you don’t need to stress about remembering everything right away.

All you need to do is work with what’s upsetting you right now, and then follow the energy back to the first time you can remember feeling that same way.

Healing from trauma means following the energy back and offering your past self compassion.

Asking, “When is the first time you remember feeling that way?” allows you to access the original root event, the starting point for your present-day pain.

Maybe it was in third grade science class when everyone made fun of you. Maybe it was when you were five years old and your older brother locked you in a closet and left you alone in the dark.

Whatever it was, you identify that first, painful occurrence, and then offer your younger self some much-needed love and compassion.

Healing from trauma also means changing how you hold traumatic events in your consciousness.

What does this mean? It means that your beliefs about your trauma have the power to keep you stuck or set you free.

For example, what happens if you believe that your trauma makes you a victim, someone who can’t have a full and happy life? Then you’ll live in a way that “proves” that belief to be true.

But what if you decide that your trauma makes you a survivor, someone who is strong and resilient, someone who can overcome and go after what they want in life? Then you’ll live in a way that reflects that belief as well.

The former keeps you stuck. The latter empowers to leave addictive behaviors behind and move forward in health and wholeness.

Resources to help you heal:

Addiction and Trauma: An Essential Link

Joe Koelzer

Joe Koelzer is a co-founder and CEO of The Clearing. He has years of counseling experience and a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

After observing how depression and substance abuse impacted his wife Betsy’s life, Joe realized how broken our current system is for addiction and related mental health treatment.

He witnessed firsthand how an evidence-based approach coupled with Spiritual Psychology saved Betsy and enabled her to gain control of her life.

In co-founding The Clearing, Joe realized his dream of creating and sharing this innovative approach with others in a structured clinical setting.

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APA Reference
, . (2017). Addiction and Trauma: An Essential Link. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Sep 2017
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