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  • Marty Lythgoe

Does Trauma Cause Addiction?

Updated: Sep 11, 2018

It is estimated that over 70% of those experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems have had a background of trauma. Experiencing trauma, whether as a victim or as a witness, has a profound impact on the brain and the body.


Just what is trauma? Trauma is a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury. The symptoms of trauma include:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event through memories, dreams, or flashbacks.

  • Avoidance or “numbing” through detachment or amnesia/blocking.

  • Arousal – irritability, angry outbursts, difficulty concentrating or sleeping.

  • Negative beliefs about oneself and the world in general.

Add to these symptoms emotional difficulties, cognitive difficulties or social difficulties and this equals what is known as “complex trauma.” There are actual brain changes causing these kind of reactions. The amygdala, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory, becomes more active. The pre-frontal cortex, the seat of judgment and rational thought, becomes less active. These brain changes contribute to an altered sense of reality in which a person who has been traumatized is simply trying to survive an ongoing sense of threat.

In working with trauma-impacted clients, I do the following:

  • Avoid any re-traumatizing.

  • Create a safe environment.

  • Recognize that symptoms are adaptive – a sign of resilience, not pathology.

  • Support control, choice, and autonomy.

  • Validate and affirm that clients are survivors, doing the best they can.

  • Teach grounding and self-soothing tools.

As an addiction counselor, I always reinforce chemical abstinence. Though giving temporary relief, the use of alcohol or other drugs ultimately causes more problems. The foundation of sobriety will increase the chances of full trauma recovery.

Trauma comes in like the fog

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