Trauma and Substance Abuse - An Intertwined Battle

March 13, 2024   •  Posted in: 

This article discusses the interplay between trauma and substance abuse, exploring how one can exacerbate the other and offering guidance on holistic approaches to treatment that address both issues simultaneously.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a psychological and emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event or series of events that exceeds an individual’s ability to cope with and process effectively.

Traumatic experiences can vary widely and may include situations such as:

  • Physical violence, emotional abuse, or neglect, especially if experienced during childhood.
  • Serious accidents, injuries, or near-death experiences, even if there is no physical harm.
  • People often have trouble surviving events like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, or wildfires due to their sudden and uncontrollable nature.
  • Being a victim of a violent crime, such as assault or robbery.
  • Soldiers and civilians are exposed to war or combat situations.
  • Severe medical conditions, treatments, or surgeries.
  • The death of a loved one, especially if sudden or violent.
  • Sexual assault or abuse.

It’s crucial to recognize trauma is a deeply individualized experience. What may be traumatic for one person may not be the same for another.

Trauma can manifest in various ways, including flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, anger, and such physical symptoms as insomnia or digestive issues.

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse, also known as substance use disorder (SUD), refers to the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs.

Substance abuse involves the excessive and recurrent use of these substances, leading to various negative consequences, both physically and mentally. It is a complex condition characterized by a range of behaviors and symptoms.

Some key features of substance abuse or substance use disorder include:

Compulsive Use

Individuals with substance use disorder often struggle to control their use of the substance. They may consume it more significantly or over a longer period than intended.


People with SUD may experience intense cravings for the substance, making it challenging to quit or cut down on use.

Physical and Psychological Dependence

Over time, the body may become dependent on the substance, leading to withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not used. Psychological dependence can also occur, where individuals feel they need the substance to function or cope with life.


With repeated use, individuals may develop a tolerance to the substance, meaning they need more of it to achieve the desired effect.

Neglecting Responsibilities

Substance abuse often leads to the neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities. Personal and professional responsibilities may be compromised.

Continued Use Despite Harm

Even when substance abuse results in physical, psychological, or social problems, individuals with SUD may continue to use the substance.

Loss of Control

People with substance use disorder frequently find it challenging to reduce or control their substance use. They may have a persistent desire to quit or cut down but are unsuccessful.

Substance abuse can involve a wide range of substances, including alcohol, prescription medications, illicit drugs (such as opioids, stimulants, and narcotics), and even over-the-counter drugs when misused.

The severity of substance use disorders can vary from mild to severe, and they can have devastating effects on an individual’s life, relationships, and overall well-being.

What is the interplay between trauma and substance abuse?

The interplay between trauma and substance abuse is complex and often bidirectional.

Trauma, which can result from various distressing experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, accidents, natural disasters, or combat exposure, can significantly increase the risk of developing substance abuse issues.

Here are vital aspects of this interplay:

  • Coping Mechanism: People who have experienced trauma may turn to substances like alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the emotional pain, anxiety, or flashbacks associated with traumatic memories.
  • Self-Medication: Some individuals use substances to self-medicate the symptoms of trauma-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may find temporary relief from symptoms like hyperarousal, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts.
  • Increased Vulnerability: Trauma can increase a person’s vulnerability to addiction by altering brain chemistry and increasing the reward sensitivity to substances. This makes it easier for individuals to become addicted.
  • Re-Traumatization: Substance abuse can lead to behaviors and situations that re-traumatize individuals. For example, engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence can result in accidents or unsafe situations.
  • Impaired Judgment: Substance abuse can impair judgment and increase the likelihood of risky behaviors, potentially leading to new traumatic events.
  • Complex Trauma: Some individuals experience complex trauma, which involves repeated or prolonged exposure to traumatic situations. This form of trauma can further complicate the relationship with substance abuse.
  • Treatment Challenges: The co-occurrence of trauma and substance abuse presents challenges in treatment. It requires addressing both issues simultaneously, as treating one without the other can lead to relapse.
  • Comorbidity: People with a history of trauma are more likely to have co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, which can also contribute to substance abuse.
  • Long-Term Consequences: The combination of trauma and substance abuse can have severe long-term consequences on an individual’s mental and physical health, relationships, and overall well-being.

What holistic approaches to treatment address both trauma and substance abuse simultaneously?

The goal of trauma treatment is to help individuals process and heal from distressing experiences, reducing the impact these events have on their mental and emotional well-being.

Treatment for substance use disorders often includes counseling, therapy, and, in some cases, medication. The goal is to help individuals achieve and maintain sobriety, address underlying issues contributing to substance abuse, and improve overall quality of life.

Recognizing and addressing the interplay between trauma and substance abuse is essential for providing effective treatment and support. Trauma-informed care and integrated treatment approaches that consider both trauma and addiction are often the most effective ways to help individuals on the path to recovery.

Holistic approaches to treatment that simultaneously address trauma and substance abuse recognize the interconnected nature of these challenges and aim to heal the individual as a whole[1]. These approaches focus on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person’s well-being[2].

A thorough evaluation is conducted to understand the extent of trauma and addiction, as well as any underlying mental health issues. This assessment helps create a tailored treatment plan.

Therapy modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and mindfulness techniques are integrated to address both trauma-related symptoms and addiction triggers.

Nutrition and exercise play a significant role. A well-balanced diet and regular physical activity can help repair the body’s systems, improve mood, and reduce the impact of stress.

Group therapy and individual counseling provide a safe space for individuals to explore their experiences, develop coping strategies, and build emotional resilience.

Techniques like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises are employed to help individuals manage stress and regulate their emotions.

Trauma and addiction often affect not only the individual but also their loved ones. Family therapy and support can promote healthier relationships and communication[3].

If spirituality is significant to the individual, therapy may incorporate spiritual practices, such as prayer or meditation, to foster a sense of purpose and connection.

In some cases, medications may be prescribed to address co-occurring mental health conditions or ease withdrawal symptoms.

Preparing for life after treatment is vital. Holistic programs help individuals build a support network and develop practical skills to maintain their recovery.

By addressing trauma and substance abuse holistically, individuals have a higher likelihood of achieving lasting recovery and improved overall well-being. These comprehensive approaches aim to heal the root causes of addiction and trauma, providing individuals with the tools and resilience needed for a brighter future.

Trauma and substance abuse treatment at The Center • A Place of HOPE

Discover hope and healing on your path to recovery from trauma and substance abuse at The Center • A Place of HOPE.

Our comprehensive program is designed to address the complex interplay between trauma and addiction, providing you with the support, guidance, and resources you need for lasting wellness.

With a dedicated team of experienced professionals, we offer personalized treatment plans that address your unique challenges and help you reclaim your life. We understand the complexities of co-occurring trauma and addiction, and we are here to empower you to overcome these obstacles.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we’re committed to helping you break free from the cycle of trauma and substance abuse, restoring your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Your journey to recovery and hope begins with us.

Contact us today to take the first step toward a brighter, healthier future.

1. Devar, D., Treating Trauma in a Holistic Model.
3. Nebelkopf, E. and Wright, S., 2011. Holistic system of care: A ten-year perspective. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43(4), pp.302-308.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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