I’ve often been asked about trauma causing substance abuse. My answer has always been no, trauma doesn’t cause substance abuse issues, but it can be the precipitating factor in their development. It also aggravates substance abuse issues and can make recovery more difficult. But lets dig a bit deeper into what that actually means.
"At a more basic level, the onset of addiction clearly results from the interplay between inherited predisposition (e.g. via genetic variants mediating the personality traits associated with drug-seeking behaviour and dependence) and the environment (e.g. actual exposure to drugs of abuse)."¹
Research tells us that addiction is heavily, but not solely generic. Individuates with substance abuse issues were likely born with a generic predisposition towards substance abuse. I like to use this analogy: some people can smoke two packs a day of cigarettes and never get lung cancer, others can never smoke a cigarette in their life and develop it. Why? The person who smokes two packs a day may have a very low generic predisposition towards lung cancer so they don’t get it while the person with a high generic predisposition who never smokes may end up sick. We often see addiction start with individuals drinking or using substances with their peers. If it were not for genetic predisposition, we would expect to see the entire group develop substance issues, instead of the one or two that actually do. The ones without the genetics are able to put the substances down and move on with their lives while the others develop issues with addiction.
But what about the trauma? This is where the environmental issues come in. Individuals with a generic predisposition to addiction who experience trauma, especially in childhood or adolescence, are significantly more likely to develop substance abuse issues.² Genetics and trauma can combine and form the “prefect storm” for addiction. Trauma can also act as an aggravating factor accelerating the progression of addiction and the amount of use. Additionally, it can make establishing the relationships that are necessary to deal with addiction more difficult.
What does this all mean? To me, it means that simply resolving trauma will not cure addiction and getting sober will not fix trauma. To become healthy and whole involves addressing both issues. Individually, these issues can seem daunting, together they can seem impossible. The good news is that there are effective ways to deal with both. There is significant medical and community support for dealing with addiction (see links below). Traumatic memories will never “go away” but there are well researched and documented ways of removing the emotional impact of these events such as EMDR therapy (www.emdria.org).
Jeff Harrolle, LPC
Thrive Counseling & Trauma Therapy
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
American Society for Addiction Medicine Resources: https://www.asam.org/public-resources/resource-links
The Support Group Project: http://www.supportgroupproject.org/
¹Wong, C. C., Mill, J., & Fernandes, C. (2011). Drugs and addiction: An introduction to epigenetics. Addiction, 106(3), 480–489
²Lindberg, M., Zeid, L. (2017). Interactive pathways to substance abuse.Addictive Behaviors 66 (2017) 76–82