In recent years, the link between trauma and addiction has become ever clearer. Traumatic events might occur at home, school, at work or in a war zone. No matter where they take place, they can have a devastating impact on physical and mental health. People who didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms as children are particularly at risk of developing trauma-induced substance abuse problems, but trauma can also impact those who didn’t experience childhood trauma.

If traumatic events and substance abuse are preventing you from living the life you deserve, Recovery at the Crossroads can help. Call us today at 888-342-3881 to start your journey.

What Is Trauma?

The word trauma comes from Greek and means wound. It describes the reaction to an event that your brain found too challenging to process properly, leaving behind an emotional wound. Some terrible things are simply beyond comprehension, and individuals who had traumatic experiences in childhood — as well as highly sensitive people — are hit particularly hard by a traumatic experience.

It’s important to note that trauma is subjective. Not everyone who has traumatic experiences goes on to develop mental health problems and substance abuse disorders. Likewise, not all substance abusers have experienced trauma. What’s more, an event that’s deemed traumatic by one person might not be perceived as such by another.

However, research continues to support the theory that adverse childhood experiences, poor mental health outcomes (particularly post traumatic stress disorder) and substance use disorders are closely tied. Studies show that physical abuse is correlated to an increase in drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse is correlated to an increased risk for cocaine and marijuana use and emotional abuse seems to increase the risk for cocaine abuse.

2 Main Types of Trauma

Type One Trauma

Type one trauma is caused by a one-off event that happens suddenly, without warning.

It’s also known as shock, acute trauma or big T trauma and is most closely tied with PTSD symptoms and diagnosis.

Some causes of type one trauma could include:


  • Severe injury or illness
  • Sexual assault
  • Violent assault
  • Traumatic loss
  • Robbery or mugging
  • Witnessing violent assault
  • Witnessing natural disaster
  • Witnessing a terrorist incident
  • Road traffic accident
  • Military incident
  • Hospitalization
  • Medical trauma
  • Childbirth
  • Post suicide attempt trauma


Type Two Trauma

Type two trauma, also known as complex trauma, occurs because of repeated traumatic experiences that occur over a prolonged period. In many instances, the perpetrator is someone very close to the victim who’s in a position to make them feel trapped, powerless and unworthy.

Instances of type two trauma could include:


  • Childhood abuse: sexual, physical or emotional
  • Childhood neglect
  • Sibling abuse
  • Domestic violence


  • Coercive control
  • Abandonment
  • Bullying
  • Overly strict upbringing


There are other types of traumatic experiences a person can go through, including collective trauma and vicarious trauma.


Collective Traumatic Events

Historical, intergenerational or collective trauma occurs among communities that are marginalized or have experienced horrific treatment in the past. What’s more, people can pass down maladaptive coping mechanisms, including stress behaviors and genetics. Instances of collective trauma include:

  • War
  • Genocide
  • Removal from a community or family
  • Racism
  • Slavery

Vicarious Traumatic Events

Vicarious or secondhand trauma occurs when someone speaks to another person about a traumatic experience. The listener can experience secondhand trauma and even present symptoms as a result of what they’ve heard.


Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Brain

Many people who require substance abuse treatment were exposed to ACEs when they were young. If a child is in a stable and nurturing environment and given support to develop coping mechanisms, ACEs won’t necessarily lead to trauma.

However, evidence suggests that unresolved traumatic experiences in childhood are closely tied with drug and alcohol abuse, in addition to other addictive behaviors and unfavorable outcomes.

The 10 ACEs are:


  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect


Household dysfunction:

  • Mental illness
  • A relative in prison
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance abuse
  • Divorce


Healthy Stress vs Trauma

It’s proposed that unresolved trauma as a result of the above causes leads to toxic stress and physically alters brain development. Not all stress is bad, and terrible events don’t have to lead to trauma if supports and coping mechanisms are in place. However, chronic, ongoing stress as a result of constant exposure to emotionally challenging, intense events is toxic to the body.

Effects of ACEs

At their core, toxic stress and trauma are disorders of the body’s immune system, and these conditions are no less serious than a chronic disease such as diabetes or heart disease. Constant exposure to stress, especially in childhood, puts the body’s fight-or-flight system into overdrive. This causes an increase in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are super when we need them but can seriously damage the body over time.

Many people who’ve experienced trauma find their body goes into fight-or-flight mode at the slightest trigger. Not only does this increase the risk of developing physical diseases, it also leads to some people turning to substance abuse as a means of regulating their dysregulated system.


Risks of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma experience puts an individual at an increased risk of a range of poor health outcomes, physical and behavioral, including:


  • Smoking
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Missing work
  • Severe obesity
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Suicidality
  • STDs
  • Lung disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Broken bones

Trauma is so dangerous because it affects us at the deepest level: genetically. When the body and mind are constantly used to dealing with stress, that’s what your body becomes primed and adapted to. This can lead to disproportionate reactions to normal situations that lead to feelings of shame and cause sufferers to withdraw.

Luckily, the plasticity of our genes and brain works both ways. Even someone who’s experienced horrific trauma is capable of healing and developing the necessary tools to learn how to regulate their emotions and self-soothe under stress. Group and individual therapy are the best ways to develop the resilience necessary to overpower the impact of trauma and addiction.

Resilience: How to Cope With Trauma

While there are a lucky few born with iron-clad genes that make them tough and resilient in the face of trauma, the majority of us have to learn how to be resilient. Individuals lucky enough to have kind, loving parents who set a healthy example and used discipline proportionately usually gain the skill as a matter of course, but you can develop it yourself at any stage in life.

Even if you had a heavy childhood trauma load, you can rebalance the scales and start experiencing more positive outcomes by fostering coping skills and actively seeking protective experiences. Here are seven methods of developing resilience:

  • Learn to make decisions on your own so you feel empowered.
  • Find coping mechanisms that work to replace quick fixes.
  • Contribute to the well-being of others to learn how good helping feels and make you feel better about seeking help.
  • Develop a clear sense of your morals and values.
  • Connect with individuals, groups and the wider community to develop a solid support system.
  • Understand that you’re deserving and worthy of a great life.
  • Develop your skills and explore your passions and goals.

Moving away from trauma and into positivity often feels unnatural at first. But don’t worry, this is entirely normal. Our brains are hardwired to seek familiarity, even if the things we’re familiar with are harmful. Taking the steps to remove toxic people and experiences from our lives and only seek uplifting people and constructive experiences is essential for long-term healing.


PTSD and Addiction

Co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorder exists among roughly 40% of civilians and veterans, which is a shockingly high figure. Trauma and addiction are closely tied, but there’s another important factor to consider. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the perception of helplessness is critical for the onset of toxic stress or PTSD. The more helpless you feel, the more likely you are to get trapped in fight-or-flight mode.

Many people aren’t aware that they’re experiencing toxic stress and might not even consciously feel helpless. Addiction treatment can help you dig deep and get to the bottom of what’s causing you to abuse drugs and alcohol in view of facing it head on, working through it and overcoming it for good.


PTSD Symptoms

It’s estimated that 8% of people who experience trauma go on to develop PTSD. The main PTSD symptoms include:

  • Reexperiencing: flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and physical responses such as sweating, shaking and feeling sick
  • Avoidance and emotional numbing
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Problems concentrating
  • Depression, anxiety and phobias
  • Self-harm

Start Healing Today

If you think an adverse childhood experience or adult trauma is causing you to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, Recovery at the Crossroads can help. We’re experts in dual diagnosis and treatment of co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders. Call at 888-342-3881 to start recovering today. RAC provides treatment options to residents in Washington Township, Camden, Woodbury, Cherry Hill, and all the surrounding areas.