Sep 13, 2016 | By Nadia Sheikh

The Correlation Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

Addiction Treatment Mental Health Recovery


For many people in recovery, trauma has played a major role in our lives. As defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma occurs as a result of violence, abuse, neglect, loss, disaster, war, or any emotionally harmful experience.

A recent report released by SAMHSA, based on a research study, shows the significant correlation between traumatic experiences and adult health challenges: adults exposed to one or more potentially traumatic events (PTEs) were more likely to engage in illicit drug use, binge drinking, and heavy drinking.

People who experienced PTEs were more likely to be diagnosed with substance use disorders and mental illness, including:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • serious psychological distress
  • major depressive episodes
  • frequent suicidal thoughts in the past year

The Universality of Trauma

The word ‘trauma’ carries a powerful punch, and we may shy away from using it to describe our experiences. Yet, SAMHSA’s report says trauma “is an almost universal experience of people with mental and substance use disorders.”

Trauma is not an excuse for substance abuse—scientific evidence simply shows that experiences with traumatic effects are undeniably linked to mental illness and substance abuse. If an event or series of events is experienced traumatically, it can negatively affect your perceptions of self and the world.

Many people learn healthy ways to cope and suffer few negative health effects, but we’re all at different stages in our learning processes. If you see trauma affecting your behavior—posing a potential threat to your sobriety—it’s important to confront those emotional wounds, big or small.

The trickiest thing about trauma: it varies for each individual. There is no ‘standard,’ awful experience that guarantees traumatic effects, and no experience is ‘not bad enough’ to legitimately affect someone traumatically. The classification of an event as a trauma depends on your individual reaction to it.

Trauma: My Start & End to Addiction

Coping Through Substance Abuse

Like plenty of people, I was teased as a kid—I was “too hairy” to be a girl, I had “sideburns and a mustache,” my Arabic name led kids to call me a “terrorist.” There was no violence, no sexual abuse—can this be trauma?

Yes, because of my reaction to it: I internalized shame; I stayed silent out of fear; I felt alone, powerless, and wondered, what’s wrong with me?

In high school, a friend collapsed during his soccer practice and died of a heart attack at age 15. I didn’t witness his death first-hand, he wasn’t a lifelong friend nor the love of my life—can this be trauma?

Yes, because of my reaction to it: This was my first experience with sudden, unexpected death; I felt helpless; my concept of life, the universe, and spirituality changed entirely; I questioned, why did this happen to him?

I was at a young age and didn’t seek support. Soon after, I started to drink and I smoked weed for the first time.

When I left for college, I wanted to numb the feelings I had let fester: inferiority, self-hate, anger at the universe, the lack of meaning I perceived in life. Substance abuse became my method of coping.

When Substance Abuse Becomes Traumatic

Eventually, I didn’t even want to feel anymore. Stimulants became my miracle drugs because they didn’t allow me to feel. In the midst of daily coke, meth, and whippit abuse, I couldn’t feel the new traumas I was putting myself through: crashing my car into a ravine and getting swarmed by bees, severe illness that left me nearly paralyzed, dropping out of school and losing my full scholarship.

When the chaos of my substance abuse caused an extremely violent fight with someone I loved—something I had never done before or even imagined—no dose was high enough to numb that pain.

Here was direct violence, visible bruises and cuts, my dissolving mental state: undeniable trauma. But the drugs weren’t helping me cope this time. I finally had to ask for help.

Trauma is not strictly defined. Past emotional wounds lead some people to abuse substances in an attempt to cope. Some people experience new, unspeakable traumas in the chaos of active addiction. Then, in recovery, we’re left to live with these traumas.

We can and must find healthy ways to process these events and cope. Much like substance abuse, there are opportunities for prevention, treatment, and recovery from trauma.

Three E’s of Trauma: Event, Experience, Effect

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Health Administration:

“Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”


“Potentially traumatic” events (PTEs) have a wide range of possibilities. In some cases, there’s extreme physical or psychological harm—like natural disasters or violence. Other traumas can occur in a series—such as life-threatening child neglect or an abusive relationship.

Events are potentially traumatic because they increase a person’s risk of developing conditions known as “trauma and stressor-related disorders,” though it’s not guaranteed.


An event may be experienced as traumatic for one person, but not for another. One child experiences an abusive home differently than their sibling. One military veteran may be traumatized in war-zone deployment, while another isn’t affected in the same way.

Our age, beliefs, and amount of support influence how we experience an event. A woman experiencing domestic violence in a culture where this is normal may be more likely to stay silent and blame herself. A teenager experiences the death of a sibling differently than a sixty-year-old would.

Characteristically, the experience of a traumatic event:

  • makes you feel powerless
  • leaves you questioning: why me?
  • includes humiliation, guilt, shame, betrayal, or silence
  • leads to self-blame and feeling alone


The adverse effects of trauma may be immediate or delayed, with short- or long-term duration. Often, these effects are very subtle:

  • Inability to cope with normal stresses and strains of daily living
  • Difficulty trusting and benefiting from relationships
  • Struggles to manage attention, memory, thinking
  • Struggles to regulate behavior
  • Inability to control the expression of emotions

These effects typically inhibit a person’s ability to function in life. Trauma might induce hyper-vigilance or a constant state of arousal in one person, yet lead someone else to numb and avoid their feelings—both of which eventually wear a person down physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Resilience and Recovery

The extent to which events harm us traumatically depends upon how we process those events, how they warp our beliefs about ourselves, and how they come to affect our lives.

When events affect our beliefs and lives negatively, we have the power to confront those emotional pains—no matter how “small” or “insignificant” we might deem them to be. Acknowledging the effects of trauma in your life is not “weak” nor an “over-exaggeration. It takes strength and an honest desire to recover.

Most often, people benefit from trauma therapy and treatment. I myself have been through special trauma therapy (EMDR) and still see a therapist—that is what best helps with my experience of life events and my recovery. Just as everyone’s recovery regimen is different, we each need different therapies and forms of support.

When seeking help to cope with trauma’s effects in your life, there are a few necessities that make recovery possible (based on SAMHSA’s six key principles of a trauma-informed approach):

  • Safety—We need an environment in which we feel physically and psychologically safe in order to face and process traumas.
  • Trustworthiness & Transparency—It’s essential to have people we can trust when we talk about trauma, so we can be honest and transparent. When we are being vulnerable, we must have trust—whether it’s our therapist or a friend.
  • Peer Support—Like addiction recovery meetings, it helps to connect with other trauma survivors. This is why we share our stories, experiences, and hope. There are options for group therapy, as well as the support of loved ones.
  • Collaboration & Mutuality—We need support and guidance, while also having the freedom to make choices about our therapy, recovery, and lives. It’s essential that we feel we can work with a therapist and that we are
  • Empowerment, Voice, & Choice—We need to find outlets to express ourselves; to freely share our pain and set goals for our recovery; to celebrate our strength and resilience. This can range from sharing our story with friends or at a meeting, writing creatively or in a journal, or creating art to release emotions.
  • Cultural, Historical, & Gender Issues—We must address our own biases, while also finding perspectives from therapists, family, or friends who see beyond stereotypes, question our negative self-beliefs, and help us build healthier thought patterns.

If you feel that you have experienced trauma in any form, explore your options: seek the help of a therapist, talk to friends and sober supports, or find a healthy way to express yourself—any means necessary to recover and protect your sobriety.

2 responses to “The Correlation Between Trauma and Substance Abuse

  • Hello Nadia, I like your article,but it goes way,way deeper than this. I was sexually abused starting at 10 years old and became an addict at 14. I’m also a military veteran. My email is if you want to know my story. Some things I say need to stay confidential.


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