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The Addiction and Trauma Connection

Updated on January 8, 2018
Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

My passion is to inspire and coach people to achieve what they want to get out of life.

Addiction Replaces


The Connection

Is there a connection between addiction and trauma?

Many are not aware that there is a relationship between an addiction and the post effects of experiencing a traumatic life event? Research has discovered that the answer is yes there is a relationship. Clinical studies showed it is a strong relationship between addiction and the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD because both are a byproduct of trauma. In fact, clinical research has proven there is a cause and effect relationship between the two.

The Connection was ignored

The connection between addiction and trauma was ignored. The relationship went unnoticed for many decades because of the following two reasons:

1. Initially, the field of addictions was isolated and not accepted by the helping professions (medicine, science, psychiatry, and psychology).

2. The field of trauma was not acknowledged by the mainstream addiction professionals until 2005.

Over the years both the fields addictions and trauma have come into their own. The “addiction treatment system” has finally accepted that experiencing the aftereffects of trauma is a precursor to the development of an addiction.

I remember getting reports from client after clients who had come into treatment for inpatient trauma from an addiction program who had stated, “When I would bring up my history of abuse or trauma in an individual or group session, afterwards I would be pulled away in private meeting and told not to speak about abuse or trauma while in the addiction program”.

Today the relationship is more accepted and actually addiction treatment facilities are adding trauma components to their programs as an adjunct. Facilities are recognizing both need to be addressed to achieve treatment success.

Trauma robs self of an authentic relationship.
Trauma robs self of an authentic relationship. | Source

PTSD symptoms are a natural response

As everyone knows the post effects of experiencing abusive or traumatic life events is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a natural aftereffect of going through such life-threatening situations. 95% of all people who face abusive, combat or traumatic events have to some degree or another PTSD symptoms. Yet the medical and psychiatric professions classifies PTSD as a mental disorder and ignore PTSD symptoms are a normal and natural result of that type of experience.

In the main cluster of PTSD symptoms is the worse symptom of them all. That worst is “re-experiencing recollections of the traumatic event”. Re-experiencing recollections of their traumatic situation are considered by survivors to be horrible because they feel like they reliving the situation all over again. This re-experiencing or clinically known as “re-living”. Meaning the memory of the event has gotten triggered and a portion of the memory has surfaced from their subconscious mind to conscious awareness. This portion of a memory that breaks off and surfaces is called a “flashback”. A flashback is a very frightening experience. The survivor feels as though he or she is experiencing the situation all over again and has lost control.

So in an attempt to control and suppress the flashback or its effects, a survivor turns to something that will either eliminate the images, suppress negative thoughts associated or numb out the extreme pain surfacing into consciousness. Survivors will do whatever it takes to stop the flashback even to the point of endangering his or her life or acquire an addiction that will assist out defeating the horrible images. Survivors will take illegal or legal substances (pain medication, alcohol, anxiety medication), participate in unhealthy behaviors (not eating or overeating, self-harm, self-sabotage, and excessive exercise), engage in repetitive distracting thoughts and/or get involved in destructive relationships.

How does this happen?

Well, ask yourself the following questions?

If out of nowhere, you began to experience disturbing images in your mind, thoughts or emotions and you take a drink of alcohol and they diminish, then will you take another drink?

If you are feeling unexplained painful emotions and you use a substance like cocaine and the pain goes away; would you use that substance again to “kill” the pain?

If you heard scary noises that you know are not happening in the here and now, and that you know were only occurring in your head and you took a substance or did a behavior or focused on a thought and the noises went away, would you then do it again?

The answer to all three questions is a resounding - yes. That is human nature to seek relief from post pain of abusive and traumatic situations.

So from the individual’s point of view with a history of abusive or traumatic experiences that began experiencing PTSD symptoms afterward, the pain was real and overwhelming, causing him or her to seek immediate relief. So the decision to use a substance is the best solution. Unfortunately, when the symptoms are successfully reduced a bond is established.

Over time a relationship forms. The relationship grows with every episode of use and control remains in the hands of the individual.

Regrettably, the once the joy of the relationship with the addictive pattern is only a fleeting. At some point, the relationship turns and the addiction gains control, reverse tolerance occurs and the relationship becomes toxic. A false sense of security grows as well.

Trauma drives self-love away
Trauma drives self-love away | Source

Trauma Robs Self-love

Experiencing a life-threatening event of abuse or trauma causes another reaction that enhances the relationship between trauma and addiction. Trauma robs a victim of many things but a major human ability is robbed is that of self-love. Once self-love evaporates then confidence, self-worth and esteem evaporate right behind. At that point, self-love is replaced by the sensation of emptiness.

This emptiness is commonly referred to as feeling like there is a hole in the chest. No one does well with feeling empty and abandon by self. The now survivor carries strong resentment against self, so validation is sought from the outside and self is ignored. That is where addiction steps in and creates a false sense of fullness and becomes the substitute for self-love. Success is felt when the emptiness sensation is gone and as long as he or she continues to use, the empty feeling stays away. The thought is “better to have a bad relationship with something outside of me than being left with someone I do not like”.

The survivor continues to invest in the relationship with the addiction. The need for the relationship grows stronger even when toxic conditions set in. For a trauma survivor, it is easier to focus on the symptoms (addition) than having to face the cause of the emptiness. Ignoring the cause (trauma) can make the symptoms (addiction) worse or just treating the "symptoms" can make the "cause" more intense.


Addictions can be the direct result of attempting to stop or control the surfacing mental, emotional and/or physical post unprocessed emotions of past traumatic experiences. Based on this viewpoint, the traumatic event is the cause and the addiction is the symptom. The addictive pattern is used to attempt to cover the surfacing pain, extreme fear, and the ensuing confusion.

Traditional modes of treatment such as AA or NA, though very successful and add a tremendous amount of support, are only treating the symptoms and therefore the root cause goes ignored and not mentioned. Participants in such meetings are not allowed to face or even talked about abuse or trauma he or she experienced and caused them to begin to use in the first place. In fact, AA or NA ignored the root causes. Therefore to increase the chance of a longer and more successful sobriety, the helping professions should address both the addiction and the symptoms are the root cause of abuse or trauma experiences With a holistic approach rather than a segregated approach helps to achieve a great degree of success and a decreased rates of relapse.

© 2011 Bill Tollefson


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      Bill Tollefson 4 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Go to this link and in top right hand of the page click on the GREEN Follow button and you will be one of my followers. Thanks

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      Beth37 4 years ago

      Subscribe to my hubs? I don't know what that means. Facebook?

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      Bill Tollefson 4 years ago from Southwest Florida

      You are welcome, Beth. Hope you subscribe to my HUBs on my profile page. Send me yours also.

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      Beth37 4 years ago

      Awesome, thanks. :)

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      Bill Tollefson 4 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Beth37 - You are very welcome. You might want to go to my other website and sign up for free and watch my free videos and mini lecture.

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      The Mini Challenge will give you a taste of what the 30 Day Challenge can do for changing limiting beliefs and addictions. Blessings, Dr Bill

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      Beth37 4 years ago

      Good info, thanks Dr. Bill.

    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

      Bill Tollefson 4 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Beth37 – Here is my answer to your question.

      If a person cannot face their past pain, how will they ever be will to deal with or face their present pain? Also if one is fighting or ignoring the pain that happened then him or her are not living in the moment and therefore denying their emotions. Addiction to a substance is a vehicle that hides past, present and future. Addiction to a substance also hides the original addiction and that was to a thought. Every addiction starts with a thought, bar none. "I am not good enough", "I don't deserve___", "I am worthless without____" and so on.

      Thanks for your question!

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      Beth37 4 years ago

      So, I wonder... is using a substance to mask past pain any different than using a substance to mask a present pain. What do you think?

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      Bill Tollefson 6 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Wysley - Thank you so much for your interest. Helping people is the main objective.

    • wysley profile image

      wysley 6 years ago

      Great article, and very informative (as usual). The two are so inter-linked. Thanks for pointing that out in such a clear and concise manner for both the suffer and other professionals to see and hopefully be able to encounter more effectual treatment outcomes as a result.

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      Bill Tollefson 6 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Happyboomernurse - Thank you for your comment on this article. I felt it was important to express my experience in both field and the best approach to helping others get through an addiction with a traumatic backgrounds. Holistic approach is important because both addictions and trauma effect every aspect of a human.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 6 years ago from South Carolina

      Thanks for this informative well written hub about the connection between addictions and trauma. I agree that it makes sense to use a holistic approach that addresses both the symptom and the root cause of addiction when treating patients with addictions.

      It is good to see someone with your credentials writing on this topic. Thanks for posting this useful article.