Connection Between Trauma and Addiction


For some time now, researchers have tried to find a causal link between substance use disorders and trauma. Although they’ve been unsuccessful at proving causation, they succeeded in finding a strong correlation. According to a 2010 study by the NCBI, just over 70% of adolescents who’ve experienced some form of trauma also receive addiction treatment at some point in their lives. The high comorbidity between trauma and addiction suggests that any type of addiction treatment should include education and therapeutic approaches for trauma. 


People who fail to address trauma are more susceptible to forming maladaptive behaviors. If gone untreated, people are more prone to substance use disorders, eating disorders, emotional or physical outbursts and a slew of mental health problems. To prevent these behaviors from taking over, it’s paramount that addiction programs use therapeutic techniques like CBT, DBT, and EMDR to address traumatic experiences.


How Does Trauma Impact The Brain?


Continued traumatic exposure will literally rewire your brain. Whether you’re experiencing big T or little T trauma (see section below), your brain will undergo several adaptations. The first is activation of your flight or fight response system causing increased cortisol and adrenaline. This process is evolutionary advantageous in small doses. However, continued activation of this system can dramatically alter your behaviors, leading to PTSD and mental health problems. Mental health professionals have developed a handful of techniques to help combat and rewire one’s brain to deal with past trauma in a healthy way. To help address these problems head on, professionals have codified trauma into big T and little T trauma.


Little T vs. Big T Trauma


The first type of traumatic event is little T trauma. This type of trauma is more nuanced and subtle. It tends to build up overtime rather than showing its effects after one experience. Since little T is less acknowledged by people outside of the mental health field, people may experience it for greater periods of time without recognizing it. PTSD from little T trauma can begin to form over continued exposure to one or more of these events.


  • Chronic illness
  • Bullying or shaming by peers or caretakers
  • Being raised in an environment where you’re taught to suppress your emotions
  • Physical and or social isolation
  • Living in extremely impoverished conditions


On the other hand, big T trauma is much more recognizable and in line with what people recognize as being traumatic. One exposure to this event can set off cascading mental health problems and maladaptive behaviors. Some of the most prevalent examples of this include:


  • Experiencing combat situations
  • Domestic violence
  • Childhood abuse or neglect 
  • Sexual, physical abuse or assault
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Verbal, emotional or mental abuse
  • Surviving a severe accident (i.e. fire, car accident, etc…)


If your or someone you know is struggling with trauma and developing maladaptive coping strategies, our team can help. Call us today to learn more about our trauma integrated model of addiction treatment.