Seven Reasons Addiction and Trauma Are Related – A Strong Relationship

By Dr. Bill Tollefson, Ph.D., Certified Master Life and Post Trauma Coach

first responder holding head

The field of addiction is becoming more and more aware of the connection between addiction and trauma. This relationship is a vital one. Research has proven this. Studies have shown that there is a strong relationship between addiction and post effects of a traumatic life event. In fact, research has shown that there is a true cause and effect relationship. Further down, you will see seven reasons addiction and trauma are related.

The relationship between Addiction and Trauma has not been noticed by addiction professionals for decades because of the following two reasons:

  1. Initially, the field of addiction was isolated and not accepted by the rest of the helping professions (medicine, science, psychiatry and psychology).
  2. The trauma field was also not acknowledged by the mainstream professional community until Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became a psychiatric diagnosis.  For a long time, addiction professionals did not allow groups that focused on trauma into addiction treatment protocols. Addiction professionals felt there was no correlation and focused mainly on the addiction symptoms.

Over the years, both fields have come into their own. The “addiction treatment system” has finally begun to accept that experiencing trauma is a precursor for the development of an addiction, whether it is to a substance, emotion, thought or behavior. 

My inpatient trauma clients reported being shut down in addiction programs. They told me, “When I would bring up my history of abuse or trauma in an individual or group therapy session, the group facilitator would give me a look and move to another client and subject. Afterwards, I would be pulled away in a private meeting and told not to speak about my abuse or trauma while in the program.” 

Today, the relationship is more accepted in addiction treatment facilities. Many facilities are adding trauma group components to their programs on a regular basis. Professionals are finally noticing that trauma survivors enter into addictive or inappropriate behavior patterns to reduce his or her symptoms of PTSD.

Here are seven reasons survivors gravitate toward a relationship with addiction, seven reasons addiction and trauma are related:

  1. To hide abuse or trauma symptoms because possessing them was viewed in mental health circles as weakness.                                                                                                                           For many decades, reacting afterwards to abusive or traumatic experiences was seen as a personal weakness, particularly in men. As the general population understood more about addictions as a disease, survivors realized it was more acceptable to have and be treated for an addiction than PTSD. 
  2. To numb out emotional, cognitive, physical and memory symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).                                                                                                                                 Survivors discovered getting habitually involved in certain behaviors, emotions, substances and thoughts reduced the vast array of PTSD symptoms. Each behavior, emotion, substance and thought attacks a different symptom. This is a reason that many survivors have many different addictions. Once the effects of a habitual behavior is diminished, the individual is already addicted and at times in the severe or toxic stage.
  3.  To fight negative thoughts that seem to originate out of thin air.                                                 First of all, “every addiction starts with a thought or set of thoughts.” Survivors find out that thoughts are his or her most powerful enemies as well as allies. So the survivors create and enlist a thought or thoughts to eliminate the constant excruciating, upsetting and damaging negative looping which seems to surface out of thin air. This unwanted negative loop seems to journey from a dark place in the subconscious to the conscious due to being triggered by flashbacks or some memory related to the traumatic experience.
  4. To achieve a level of denial of reality through “gas lighting” self.                                             The definition of gas lighting is to undermine perception of reality. To create a false inner reality to veil any knowledge or memory of the past and what happened. The one main thing a survivor does not want to realize is that he or she was abused or traumatized and the experiences had changed them forever. “I was never the same afterwards.”
  5. To produce a false sense of security.                                                                                               Many survivors live in a constant fear of everything around them. Having addictions gives survivors a false sense of being safe, something to focus on and alleviates emotional uptake.
  6. An addiction relapse is a marker.                                                                                                               If both the addiction and PTSD are not treated together, a resurgence of PTSD will send a survivor who had only worked on his or her sobriety into an addiction relapse to mask over the surfacing PTSD symptoms.
  7. Re-experiencing of recollections of a traumatic event.                                                                Having traumatic memories or flashbacks is one of the main and worse symptoms of PTSD. Survivors who are re-experiencing traumatic memories or flashbacks will attempt to control, fight or suppress these through addictive patterns, behavior, thoughts or substances. A survivor will turn to taking illegal or legal substances (alcohol or drugs or prescription medication) to block out visual flashbacks, participate in unhealthy behaviors (eating or depriving of food, pornography, self-harm, self-sabotage, sex, and/or excessive exercise) to block out physical flashbacks, or engage in repetitive harmful thoughts and/or destructive relationships to block out emotional flashbacks.

Not only does a survivor use an addiction to stop one of the seven reasons mentioned above but would enter into more than one addiction to accomplish them all. A survivor may even be juggling 7 different addictive relationships at the same time to resolve all 7 reasons. Thus, seven reasons addiction and trauma are related.

How does this happen?

Well, ask yourself the following questions … 

  • What if out of nowhere, you began to experience disturbing images in your mind, hurtful emotions, thoughts or physical pain and you take a drink of alcohol in order to diminish those symptoms and they abate? Then might you repeat that act, and take another drink? 
  • What if you are feeling unexplained painful emotions and you experience a substance like cocaine and the pain goes away, would you use that substance again to “kill” the pain? 
  • What if you heard scary noises that you know are not happening in the here and now and are only occurring in your head, and you took a substance or did a behavior or focused on a thought and the noises went away … would you do it again? Of course, you would. 

So the answer to all three questions is a resounding – yes. It is human nature to seek relief to cover up surfacing knowledge of what happened or deaden the pain.

The Relationship

So from the individual’s point of view with a history of abusive or traumatic experiences that began experiencing PTSD symptoms, his or her first reaction is to fight them off and not experience them. Historically, having an addiction and seeking treatment has been more socially acceptable than admitting to being abused or traumatized. The decision to use a substance, a thought, or a behavior is a quick fix. Entering into an addictive relationship neutralizes PTSD symptoms immediately. It doesn’t matter whether in the long run the substance, thought, or behavior might be harmful. A bond establishes itself instantly. For a survivor, having a relationship with addiction can actually work and be very successful in the beginning. The relationship grows every time the survivor uses the addiction to restore some control over his or her mind. Unfortunately over time, the control diminishes and the need to continue is necessary. Once the positive results of the addictive relationship decreases, the intensity of the PTSD symptoms returns. The fleeting sense of control that the addiction afforded reverses as tolerance grows. At that point, the addiction becomes out of control. The relationship that was once enjoyable, fruitful and controllable becomes toxic. 


Even though the relationship grows more and more toxic, the individual is unable to let it go because of the strong behavior that all trauma survivors seems to display andthat behavior is loyalty. As seen in many traumatic relationships between a victim and his or her perpetrator, the individual keeps the secret of the abuse or trauma with no apparent reason. The survivor will protect the perpetrator at all costs. Whether it is through denial, lying, secretiveness or the willingness to die for his or her perpetrator, he or she will remain loyal. The same holds true for addiction. The person will preserve the addiction relationship even though it is no longer serving the purpose of suppressing any of the PTSD symptoms.  


Addictions can be the direct result of attempting to stop or control the surfacing mental, emotional and/or physical pain of past abusive and/or traumatic experiences. Based on this viewpoint, the traumatic event is the cause and the addiction is the symptom. Traditional modes of treatment such as AA or NA, may state that the substance is just a symptom, and to recover one must get down to “causes and conditions,” however, this is not often thoroughly explored or supported for trauma and abuse survivors. Therefore, helping professionals should address both the symptom and the cause together with a dual approach rather than a segregated approach to achieve a greater degree of success and decreased rates of relapse. Understanding the seven reasons addiction and trauma are related can be very helpful.

William Tollefson has a doctorate in clinical psychology. He is a nationally known author, certified master life, post-trauma and addiction recovery coach, board certified hypnotherapist, certified reality therapist, board certified clinical psychotherapist, publisher, and international speaker as well as a radio personality and radio co-host. He is also a well-known expert on the effects of abuse, combat, dissociation, dissociative identity disorders, stress, and trauma. He has traveled both nationally and internationally educating other professionals on the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, Dissociation, Dissociative Identity Disorders and Stress disorders. Dr. Bill was the founder and owner of Women’s Institute for Incorporation Therapy a well-known inpatient psychiatric trauma program. 

 Currently, Dr. Bill has a successful Life Coaching Practice in Southwest Florida and Boca Raton, Florida. 

Dr. Bill’s has published two books, Separated from the Light: A Path Back from Psychological Trauma and Personal Philosophy Method.