Trauma's Relationship to Addiction

Sep 15, 2023
Addiction in America
This blog provides evidence-based analysis from credible sources that will prove why an increase in traumatic events is the leading cause of addiction in the United States.  

Why Trauma is the Leading Cause of Addiction in the USA?

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional reaction to a terrible event such as rape, accident, or natural disaster. Severe trauma can result in tremendous effects on the mental development of the victim and should therefore be taken very seriously. Studies show that seven out of ten people in the United States experience a traumatic event at some point, and about twenty per cent of the victims later develop post-traumatic stress disorders (Adhikari Baral & KC, 2019). Comparatively, researchers report a huge relationship between trauma and addiction. This blog provides evidence-based analysis from credible sources that will prove why an increase in traumatic events is the leading cause of addiction in the United States.  

Trauma as a risk factor in substance abuse disorder 

Decades of studies assert that trauma is a huge risk factor in almost all substance use syndromes. The studies have established a strong connection between exposure to traumatic events and SUD (Webster, 2017). Equally, people with substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to witnessing traumatic cases, thus exposing millions of people to a continuous cycle of traumatic events and enhanced risk of engaging in drug and substance abuse. 

Marel et al. (2019) report that psychiatric disorders are among the leading risk factors for substance abuse disorder. The study identifies influential factors such as family history, ethnicity, and age. Furthermore, other emerging data, particularly from the American adolescent samples, also draw a significant correlation between exposures to traumatic experiences with the tendency to experience substance abuse disorder. Another study by Schwarz et al. (2017) reported that the prevalence of traumatized women experiencing alcohol and other substance abuse is higher than that of their male counterparts.

Child trauma and addiction 

Studies show that many people with a history of traumatic experiences are more likely to develop conditions such as panic attacks, depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When a kid becomes traumatized, the long-term effects might be more severe than the impact an adult person would suffer (Lueger-Schuster et al., 2018). Scientifically, it is because a child’s brain cells are in the initial stages of development, thus giving room for traumatic events to cause a larger impact. 

In other words, mental health disorders triggered by trauma will become intensified if the victim experiencing it is a child. The reason behind the argument is that children are typically less capable of working through or understanding traumatic experiences that they face (Zastrow et al., 2019). Moreover, numerous kids have no ability to avoid or leave traumatic experiences like abusive households. The issues can become unbearable, resulting in permanent issues like PTSD, depression, addiction, and even suicide.

The USA has a high rate of child trauma.

According to the recent survey on adverse childhood experiences by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), nearly half of the U.S. children population has experienced at least one or more types of severe childhood trauma (Schroeder et al., 2021). This is roughly 34,825,978 children countrywide, per the researchers who scrutinized the survey data. The biggest concern is that almost a third of American youth aged 12-17 have witnessed two or more types of childhood adversity that are probable to impact their mental and physical health in adulthood.

Moreover, the United States continues to record a higher number of children from minority nationalities. According to Yoshikawa et al. (2021), As per 2020 national statistics, the majority of the youth and children population in the United States are from these minority groups, which include those of African, Asian origin, Latinx, and American Indian populations; and significant immigration from, Southeast and East Asia, Latin America, and Middle East backgrounds.

These populations are statistically the most traumatized, and those that face higher rates of psychosocial disparities like poverty, barriers to health and mental health services, lack of education, and exposure to numerous stressors such as racism, discrimination, community violence, and acculturation and immigration stresses. In light of the above statistics, it is hard to against the fact that the increasing case of substance and drug abuse in the United States is a consequence of the growing cases of traumatic events experienced, particularly in the children and youth population.

The link between trauma and addiction

For the past few decades, numerous researchers have presented several hypotheses to enlighten this link between trauma and addiction, primarily focusing on the victims diagnosed with PTSD: However, the most convincing hypothesis is the self-medication hypothesis (Skewes & Blume, 2019). Here, the victims of PTSD abuse substances and drugs in an attempt to counteract or cope with their traumatic symptoms. 

Living a life of dread, fear or terror and not knowing if someone will come to your rescue is frequently the reality for numerous trauma victims, predominantly those with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) (Skewes & Blume, 2019). Feeling isolated, scared, and with no sense of safety are among some of the assurances of a traumatic story. Such experiences increase the chances of addiction later on as the victims fight to find a way to manage the experiences.

In summary, countless evidence shows that traumatic events, especially among children and youths, are among the leading factors of addiction in the United States. The high number of children from minority groups increases the credibility of the assumption that trauma is the main cause of drug and substance abuse in America. The population of minority groups is higher than that of the majority, according to the population statistics 2020. Studies show that this population also experiences adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) related to racism, discrimination, community violence, and acculturation and immigration stresses. 

Trauma has a great relationship with addiction and substance abuse. According to most researchers, most trauma victims engage in drug and substance abuse to self-medicate. In other words, the victims of PTSD abuse substances and drugs in an attempt to counteract or cope with their traumatic symptoms. 


Adhikari Baral, I., & KC, B. (2019). Post-traumatic stress disorder and coping strategies among adult earthquake survivors, Nepal. BMC Psychiatry19(1), 1-8.

Lueger-Schuster, B., Knefel, M., Glück, T. M., Jagsch, R., Kantor, V., & Weindl, D. (2018). Child abuse and neglect in institutional settings, cumulative lifetime traumatization, and long-term psychopathological correlates in adult survivors: The Vienna Institutional Abuse Study. Child abuse & neglect76, 488-501.

Marel, C., Sunderland, M., Mills, K. L., Slade, T., Teesson, M., & Chapman, C. (2019). Conditional probabilities of substance use disorders and associated risk factors: Progression from first use to use disorder on alcohol, cannabis, stimulants, sedatives and opioids. Drug and alcohol dependencepp. 194, 136–142.

Schroeder, K., Schuler, B. R., Kobulsky, J. M., & Sarwer, D. B. (2021). The association between adverse childhood experiences and childhood obesity: A systematic review. Obesity Reviews22(7), e13204.

Schwarz, J., Gibson, S., & Lewis-Ar, C. (2017). Sexual assault on college campuses: Substance use, victim status awareness, and barriers to reporting. Building Healthy Academic Communities Journal1(2), 45–60.