GET HELP NOW! CALL 24/7 (800) 851-1941

The Link Between Trauma & Substance Abuse


“Trauma” is a term that refers to an individual’s “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” However, trauma can result from many other influential experiences, some of which include grief, neglect, terrorism, displacement, physical abuse, going to war, witnessing violence, and even being bullied.

Trauma can be long-term or short-lived and can result in “unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” It can cause fear, anxiety, and depression as well as severely damage a person’s overall mental, emotional, and physical health.

Many individuals struggling with trauma have extreme difficulty moving on with their lives afterwards.



Unfortunately, trauma is much more common than we tend to believe.

In fact, a continuation of a study conducted on childhood trauma found that “more than 68% of children and adolescents had experienced a potentially traumatic event by the age of 16.”

Furthermore, a 2013 study, funded by both the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services, found that “traumatic event exposure using DSM-5 criteria was high (89.7%), and exposure to multiple traumatic event types was the norm.”

Though there is no precise estimate regarding how many individuals are exposed to trauma during their lifetime, it’s no secret that trauma is a major public health issue.


It’s been scientifically proven that there are multiple links between exposure to trauma and substance abuse.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, one of the biggest studies regarding the effects of childhood trauma, found that “children who experience abuse and neglect are at increased risk for smoking, alcoholism, and drug abuse as adults, as well as engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors.”

Research also suggests that “those with a history of child abuse and neglect are 1.5 times more likely to use illicit drugs, especially marijuana, in middle adulthood” and that childhood abuse and neglect can have a “negative effect on the ability of both men and women to establish and maintain healthy intimate relationships in adulthood.”

In fact, Edward Khantzian’s self-medication hypothesis of substance use disorders concluded that, while there are many components that contribute to addiction, self-medication is one of the “more compelling” reasons addicts use drugs.

When that hypothesis was created, clinical findings suggested that “rather than simply seeking escape, euphoria, or self-destruction,” addicts were “attempting to medicate themselves for a range of psychiatric problems and painful emotional states.”


Luckily, science and psychology have come a long way since Khantzian first concluded that addiction was a form of self-medication.

There are now many “trauma-informed” approaches regarding providing behavioral care to those struggling with fallout stemming from traumatic exposures. In order to treat addiction resulting from trauma, the trauma, itself, must also be addressed.

SAMHSA, one of the “leading agencies” that addresses the impact of trauma, has created the “four ‘Rs’” to help other programs and organizations give clients dealing with trauma the best possible care.

The “four ‘Rs’” are as follows:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery
  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices
  4. Actively seeks to Resist re-traumatization

Learn about other effective treatments for trauma and PTSD.

Need Help?

Chat with an addiction specialist now.