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How Can Trauma Lead to Substance Abuse?

man in blue bathroom looks into trauma and substance abuse

If you or a loved one is struggling with trauma-based substance abuse, you’re not alone. Millions of others have been in situations like yours. Like them, you can increase your chance of full recovery by reaching out for help. If you’d like to learn more about the link between trauma and substance abuse, call 888.568.2057 or reach out online. The caring team at Nulife Recovery Massachusetts is standing by to answer your questions and connect you with resources. Our trauma therapy program can help those who are working towards recovery from past trauma and substance abuse.

How to Determine Whether You’re Experiencing Trauma

When a person survives an event like serious injury, sexual violation, or a natural disaster, their whole life can be impacted. If you or your loved one is experiencing some or all of the following symptoms, trauma may be the underlying cause:

  • Shock or denial immediately following a terrible event
  • Volatile or otherwise unpredictable emotions that may make your day-to-day life feel like a rollercoaster
  • Flashbacks during which your mind replays the terrible event seemingly without you having any control over the process
  • Difficulty maintaining healthy relationships or engaging socially
  • Extreme distraction or inability to concentrate at work or during activities you previously enjoyed like hobbies or sports
  • Nightmares, especially ones related directly or indirectly to a terrible event you’ve lived through
  • Headaches, intestinal pain, or nausea
  • Substance use as a means to numb or distract from emotional pain or unwanted thoughts

How Trauma Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Trauma and addiction go hand in hand because of the physical basis of trauma and substances’ ability to act on this level. Following traumatic events, one of two major changes can occur for an individual.


In some cases, especially those involving ongoing early life trauma, a state of hyperarousal can occur. This means that the trauma survivor’s nervous system was activated into a fight-or-flight response to cope with the dangerous event but never fully returned to its base state. This could be because the dangerous event occurred many times or because a single dangerous event was never entirely processed. Hyperarousal often shows up as constant vigilance or anxiety, volatile emotions, insomnia, or flashbacks.

Those with hyperarousal symptoms are more likely to use alcohol or drugs that soothe or numb, such as opioids or barbiturates. Other behaviors, such as gambling with electronic machines, may also produce a trance-like state that allows trauma survivors to temporarily escape frightening or otherwise overwhelming emotions or thoughts.

The unfortunate truth is that repeatedly self-medicating through substance use or risky behavior only makes matters worse long term. The original trauma remains untreated, the body and mind continue to demand self-medication to cope, and risk factors like overdose persist.


Other trauma survivors struggle with hypoarousal after the fact. This nervous system response often looks like dissociation or ongoing emotional numbness. Individuals with hypoarousal symptoms may therefore seek out drugs that excite the nervous system. This allows them the ability to feel more sensation than they can unassisted. Commonly abused substances include synthetic drugs, amphetamines, and nicotine. All of these produce chemical highs that temporarily relieve hypoarousal. Experiences like unsafe sex, non-lethal self-harm, or dangerous driving may also temporarily fill a person’s need for sensation.

The results of habitually using stimulating substances or engaging in risky behaviors to manage hypoarousal are just as dangerous as the results of self-medicating for hyperarousal. A host of subsidiary dangers are present in substance abuse and risky behavior. Moreover, depending on them as coping mechanisms only prolongs trauma’s impact. Trauma is a root cause of mental and physical suffering and only addressing it as such can truly facilitate healing.

Contact NuLife Behavioral Health to Learn More About Trauma Therapy

Trauma is the body and mind’s way of asking for a helping hand. If you’ve experienced a terrible event, it’s not your fault. It’s perfectly understandable that you’re struggling in the aftermath. Resources like the ones at NuLife Behavioral Health are here to help. With professional therapeutic intervention paired with treatment for any related concerns such as substance abuse, healing is absolutely within reach. Reach out to us via our secure online form or call 888.568.2057 to start the process today. We provide services in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Indiana, and Illinois. If you need services outside these states, our team is also happy to make referrals.