Therapist with hand on client shoulder supporting with trauma-informed addiction treatment

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment

Trauma-informed addiction treatment is one of the most promising trends in the field of substance use disorder treatment. It may be no surprise to you that most people have experienced trauma. We know that our experiences, good and bad, make us who we are. But did you know trauma is the most frequent catalyst for a substance use disorder?


Trauma can take away a person’s joy and sense of security. It can deny them the life they deserve. The goal of trauma-informed addiction treatment is to restore hope, trust and security. It is an evidence-based approach that is transforming lives already.


What is Trauma?

Our focus for this article will be on psychological trauma rather than physical trauma. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” However, that description barely begins to scratch the surface of what trauma means to someone who experiences it.

The echoes of traumatic experiences or events often reverberate throughout a person’s life. These thoughts can alter someone’s personality and way of seeing the world. They change perspective. They can turn a social butterfly into a shy introvert. Traumatic experiences often have a profound impact on a person’s ability to trust and even to love. Trauma can touch almost every area of our lives. It is so important to understand what it is and how to break free of it for these reasons.

Understanding is key to the healing process, whether you are living with trauma or trying to help someone who is. One common misconception is that the term trauma refers to the event or stimulus itself. It does not. Trauma is, in fact, the response or reaction a person has as a result of a traumatic event.

One real-world example of a trauma response might be a woman who sleeps on the sofa every night because she can’t sleep comfortably in her own bed. Occasionally sleeping on the couch is perfectly normal for most people. But in this case, trauma is the motivating factor. As a little girl who was repeatedly sexually assaulted in her bed, her mind began to associate bed with the traumatic event.

The unresolved nature of the trauma means the adult woman still doesn’t feel safe in her own bed. Logic tells her that her bed is safe, she understands she isn’t that little girl anymore, and her attacker is not a threat. But the trauma response is fueled by emotion, not logic. It is why the right treatment is essential. Trauma-informed addiction treatment is the single most effective way to break out of the prison of trauma and live a life of courage and hopeful joy.


What are the Different Types of Trauma?

Trauma is a complex subject. It’s impossible to cover every type and variation in this article, but all trauma is believed to fall under one of three major categories. Identifying the category trauma is in may help direct trauma-informed addiction treatment.

The three major types of trauma are:


  • Acute Trauma: This type comes from a single traumatic event that’s enough to threaten your physical or emotional security. Sexual assault or a car accident are examples.
  • Chronic Trauma: When someone is exposed to multiple long-term or prolonged traumatic incidents over a period of time. Long-term sexual abuse or bullying, for example.
  • Complex Trauma: Complex trauma happens when a person is exposed to a variety of traumatic events and experiences over time. (e.g., childhood abuse, domestic violence or combat stress.)


How the Brain Responds to Trauma

Psychologists believe trauma is a result of the mind’s attempt to protect us from the source of that fear which made such an impression. Trauma isn’t inherently negative per se. It is part of our evolutionary response to fear. However, the world we live in today is much different than the one our ancestors lived in when the trauma response first evolved.

Scientists studying how trauma changes the brain have discovered that the fear response begins in the amygdala, but trauma develops in the more advanced parts of the brain, including the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. This “intellectual” part of the brain interprets the experience that triggered the fear and commits to memory. That memory informed future behavior, much the way we learn about anything. One key difference with trauma compared to other lessons is the tie between powerful emotions and memory.

In simple terms, this means a primitive part of the brain responds to fear by sending signals to the reasoning/thinking part of the brain. It is your brain’s way of trying to protect you. It’s also part of how trauma changes the brain.

The main way your brain tries to adapt your behavior is through emotion. Research shows that trauma actually changes the way the brain works, even altering its physical structure. Understanding the way the brain responds to trauma can help us treat it more effectively. Trauma-informed addiction treatment uses this understanding to smash the walls that fear has built. It helps a person tap into the strength, hope and joy that can sustain long-term recovery.


What is Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment?

The effects of trauma cannot generally resolve themselves. Most people either adapt to living with the effects, develop coping mechanisms or seek professional help to begin healing. Because the effects of trauma can reverberate throughout a person’s life, it’s only natural that we look for ways to cope with the symptoms. Sadly, substance use is one of the most common coping mechanisms people turn to.

Nearly anyone with a substance use disorder will tell you their primary motive for using was to “change how they feel.” Whether it’s boredom, depression or the effects of trauma, they are trying to escape, the mechanism is the same. There is an undeniable link between trauma and substance use disorders.

Trauma-informed addiction treatment is an evidence-based model which incorporates our knowledge of how the brain processes trauma. By understanding how trauma changes the brain, trauma-informed treatment can more effectively counteract its effects. Simply put, we look at what trauma does and apply therapies that “push back” to reverse those effects. Trauma makes a person feel afraid, overwhelmed and threatened and affects their ability to trust. Trauma can make a person feel helpless and diminish their self-esteem.


Therefore, trauma-informed care works to:

  • Make people feel physically safe.
  • Help people develop trust and feel in control.
  • Show them their boundaries are respected.
  • Empower them with both choice and capabilities.
  • Improve their sense of self-worth.


Trauma-informed addiction treatment is a natural evolution of the co-occurring or dual-diagnosis treatment model. The idea is that targeting the underlying causes and conditions at the root of a substance use disorder is the most effective possible approach. It results in not only a happier, healthier person but also one who is more well-adjusted to their world. Diagnosing and treating trauma and its effects is proven to deliver better outcomes. The healing and greater self-knowledge and awareness significantly improve the chance of building lasting recovery.


The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

Here are some grave statistics which illustrate the need for trauma-informed addiction treatment:

  • 25-75% of people who lived through violent traumatic experiences report problems with alcohol use.
  • About 1/3 of people who survive accidents, grave illness or disaster events say they have had problems with alcohol use.
  • Up to 34% of people in treatment for a substance use disorder also have PTSD.
  • About 75% of the people in treatment for a substance use disorder report a history of abuse or trauma.
  • People with five or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are 7-10 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder.
  • Most veterans meet the criteria for both a substance use disorder and PTSD. A study in the 1980s found this with 74% of Vietnam veterans.



How to Find Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment

In your search for substance use disorder treatment, it’s important to consider the needs you or your loved one has beyond drugs or alcohol. People are frequently unaware of just how much trauma is affecting their lives. They may not even be consciously aware of the effects of trauma. They know they are unhappy, anxious or angry. Maybe they know they drink more than they should, or they are taking unnecessary risks with drugs. They might even make the connection between those responses and past trauma. But it is rare people can see the big picture, just how deep the roots of trauma run and what they mean.

The main thing you should look for in trauma-informed addiction treatment includes a curriculum that directly addresses trauma concerns. It may include things like the Seeking Safety model, a therapeutic program specifically for women with substance use disorders living with trauma. Seeking Safety is an evidence-based method on five central ideas designed to help women feel safe and empowered in their lives and have healthy relationships and boundaries.

A trauma-informed addiction treatment program should be focused on helping patients feel physically safe and give them activities to help develop trust. There must be a focus on empowerment and building self-esteem. Trauma-informed addiction treatment should place emphasis on healthy boundaries and trust. Patients should learn the nature of their condition and how to incorporate that knowledge into their recovery. Don’t hesitate to ask the staff for specifics in terms of how a program reaches these goals.


Trauma-Informed Treatment at Brazos Valley

Promises Brazos Valley is an evidence-based program, like all of the programs in the Promises Behavioral Health family. We are dedicated to helping the trauma-informed care model flourish because we have seen it transform lives firsthand. This mode of treatment is deeply engrained in our program. We offer a multitude of trauma-focused therapies, including the Seeking Safety program. Promises Brazos Valley welcomes the opportunity to be a part of the recovery journey for you or your loved one. Please don’t hesitate to call us at 844-667-8240 if you have any questions about trauma-informed treatment for substance use disorders or anything else.

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