Experiencing a trauma doesn’t guarantee that a person will develop an addiction, yet research clearly suggests that trauma is a major underlying source of addicted behaviors. Studies have linked trauma to drug use, eating disorders and other habitual behaviors.

Not why addiction, but why the pain? – Dr. Gabor Maté


When a person fears for his/her safety, experiences intense pain, or witnesses a tragic or violent act, that person can be described as having experienced trauma. Reactions to traumatic events are varied. Although traumatic experiences effect people at any age, adults will generally be more likely to manage through trauma than children will be. Examples of traumatic events include repeated or ongoing abuse, car accidents, repeated bullying, street violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, unstable home environment, or battling a life-threatening illness.

How Trauma Effects the Brain

Brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas. Traumatic stress is associated with increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors. Antidepressants have effects on the hippocampus that counteract the effects of stress. Findings from animal studies have been extended to patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showing smaller hippocampal and anterior cingulate volumes, increased amygdala function, and decreased medial prefrontal/anterior cingulate function. In addition, patients with PTSD show increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to stress. Treatments that are efficacious for PTSD show a promotion of neurogenesis in animal studies, as well as promotion of memory and increased hippocampal volume in PTSD.

Effects of Traumatic Stress

Traumatic stressors such as early trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects about 8% of Americans at some time in their lives, as well as depression, substance abuse, dissociation, personality disorders, and health problems. For many trauma victims, PTSD can be a lifelong problem. (Bremner, J. Douglas. “Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 8.4 (2006): 445–461. Print.)

Trauma creates changes; you are NOT choosing these changes.

This is normal part of what happens after trauma. However, you have the opportunity to change again and the potential to heal. You didn’t wake up one day and decide to become an addict. If you have experienced trauma in your life, you likely woke up with the conscious or unconscious desire for what all trauma survivors want: safety and control. The good intention behind your addictive behavior is relief and the restoration of control.

Rather than looking at your addictive behavior and feeling embarrassed or ashamed, you can observe what lies beneath it: the desire to feel better. Acknowledging the need to: be in control, stay safe, escape unpleasant memories, soothe internal pain, can help you better understand your addictive behaviors. By identifying the “good” initial intention behind addictive behavior will open the door to healing and will help you achieve healthy ways to cope.