Updated on 3/7/2023

People may start to use alcohol and other drugs for a variety of different reasons. Some people may be curious about the effects of drugs and experiment with them, while others may turn to drugs in an attempt to self-medicate physical, mental or emotional distress. Often, untreated mental health problems contribute to substance use and the development of substance use disorder (SUD).

Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed., CEO of PaRC

Nearly everyone will struggle with their mental health at some point in their life. Many people develop mental health problems as a result of trauma. The effects of trauma tend to linger for a lifetime, especially if they are left untreated. As a result, many people who have experienced trauma turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate.

It is crucial to understand the impact that trauma — past or present — can have on both initial and recurring substance use. Similarly, understanding how trauma can make an individual more vulnerable to the development of addiction is a big part of treating both conditions.

What is trauma?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as an event or circumstance that causes physical, emotional or life-threatening harm, including but not limited to any form of abuse, neglect, grief or natural disaster.

Trauma is subjective and is dependent on an individual’s unique perception of an event. Two people who experience the same event may experience drastically different responses. Similarly, a person does not have to be the receiver of physical or emotional harm in order to experience trauma. They can also be a witness to or family member of someone that experiences direct harm.

SAMHSA also explains that events or circumstances that cause trauma have long-lasting adverse effects in all areas of an individual’s life, including their:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Emotional health
  • Social well-being
  • Spiritual well-being

Unfortunately, trauma is a common experience for many individuals, especially those who actively struggle with mental health disorders and SUD. Still, trauma affects everyone differently. Some people who endure trauma go about their lives without experiencing any long-lasting negative effects. Others may develop moderate to severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can interfere with their ability to function normally in daily life.

Trauma is a risk factor for substance use disorder.

Trauma is not something that humans are naturally able to overcome on their own. The human brain and the body’s natural stress response are programmed to prioritize survival. When an individual experiences a traumatic event, their brain can make unconscious connections to all of the internal and environmental cues present during the traumatic event. As a result, their brain can learn to view all these cues as harmful or life-threatening, even if they aren’t inherently unsafe, just because they were once present at a time when they were, or perceived themselves to be, unsafe.

In an effort to overcome this dysregulated stress response, many people turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. This may seem like a quick and easy way to experience relief from distressing symptoms. However, an individual can quickly become dependent on these substances as a way to experience any kind of relief or pleasure. With this kind of usage pattern, it is often just a matter of time before the individual develops an addiction.

While trauma is a risk factor that can make an individual more vulnerable to SUD, SUD can also increase the likelihood of experiencing trauma. This is because substance use is identified as high-risk behavior, as individuals who frequently use substances are less able to cope with traumatic experiences.

Effectively treat trauma and addiction simultaneously.

All individuals who seek out treatment and recovery for SUD should receive treatment from a trauma-informed lens. Trauma-informed care recognizes that most individuals who struggle with SUD or other mental health conditions often have some kind of untreated, underlying trauma. While a person may be able to achieve initial sobriety without treating their trauma, it is difficult to maintain sobriety unless they get treatment for the underlying issues that drive their substance use.

To make treatment as effective as possible, treatment facilities must utilize individualized treatment plans for their patients. Individualized treatment plans take into account all aspects of an individual’s well-being that must be addressed during the treatment process. Unique treatment plans ensure that personal needs and recovery goals are being met throughout treatment and long-term recovery.

One of the most important aspects of recovery for individuals working to overcome trauma is social support. Group therapy and other community groups can help individuals feel less alone in what they are feeling, thinking and experiencing. Similarly, these treatment opportunities offer a safe space for individuals to share their own perspectives about trauma and substance use and share what things have worked or not worked throughout their recovery process to give others hope, suggestions and encouragement.

Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC) is an addiction treatment facility for both adults and teens. We understand that trauma is often behind problematic substance use, which is why we use trauma-informed care during treatment. We offer a wide range of treatment programs and services to ensure that our care is individualized and unique to each patient. We also work to treat any co-occurring mental health disorders that may be affecting your ability to stay sober. To learn more about our facility or for treatment options, give us a call today at (713) 939-7272.