Trauma is definitely linked with addiction. Here's what we know about the brain changes caused by trauma.

 Note: Trauma can impact us deeply. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, reach out to Lines for Life right away. Local, understanding people are available to listen 24/7. Their number is 800-273-8255. This article deals with trauma. If you do not feel safe to read material about potentially upsetting subjects right now, please click away.

Childhood trauma is common in the general population. In Kaiser’s famous ACES (Adverse Childhood Events) study, about 45% of people reported experiencing at least one adverse (or traumatic) event in their youth. 

Traumatic events include natural disasters, divorce, the death of a loved one, domestic violence, incarceration, neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse. While the experience of trauma is highly subjective, anything that profoundly disrupts a child’s sense of safety and routine can be considered traumatic.

Interestingly, the rates of childhood trauma in people who suffer from Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is even higher than that of the general population. Around 66% of people with SUD reported at least one ACE in their personal history. 

Why are those suffering from addiction more likely to have a history of trauma? 

The truth is that researchers have known for a long time that there is a connection between trauma and addiction. Today, we’ll look at how trauma changes the brain and can contribute to the development of SUD in some people. 

What do We Know About How the Brain Responds to Danger and Trauma?

The brain has a very specific reaction to danger. When that reaction is activated too often, semi-permanent changes can take place in the brain that make addiction more likely.

When we are exposed to trauma at any time in our lives – but especially before the age of 6 – our brain reacts in several predictable ways in an effort to prevent future injury and protect us from immediate harm. If the exposure to trauma is profound and/or long-term, our brain will adapt to the experience and create lasting changes to the way the various parts of our brain send and receive messages. 

When we sense danger, our limbic system – responsible for the “fight or flight” response – gets activated. We are primed to either run from a predator or confront it, if necessary. Sometimes, when both options seem remote, our bodies will freeze, hoping to avoid detection. 

So How Does Trauma Change the Brain Exactly? 

Trauma changes several portions of the brain, making it more likely for a person to develop addiction problems.

Trauma’s impact on the brain resembles a “fight or flight” response that won’t shut off. 

In a nutshell, our brains decide that we are in so much danger now or that we have been in such a degree of danger for such a period of time that we should stay hyper vigilant to the possibility of danger in our environment over the long-term. 

Specifically, the following changes are made on a semi-permanent basis to our brains:

  • The prefrontal cortex, or “thinking center” of the brain, dials back activity


  • The anterior cingulate cortex, or “emotional regulation center” also dials back activity

This is all done so that the amygdala – or “threat detection and response” center – can lead a more prominent role in the brain’s activities.

The result? 

Increased irritability, general mood instability and hyper-vigilance coupled with impaired memory and cognition. Those with a history of trauma often report feeling “foggy” or unable to concentrate due to their over-functioning amygdalas and under-functioning prefrontal cortexes.  

Are the Changes that Trauma Can Cause in the Brain Permanent?

In short, no. 

There is no need to view those with a history of trauma as “broken.” 

With proper treatment, the negative effects of trauma on the brain can be mitigated. Psychotherapy should be at the top of the treatment list for anyone with a history of trauma. A licensed counselor can work with individuals to fully process the trauma and create healthier responses to perceived threats moving forward. 

About the Connection Between Trauma and Addiction 

Addiction doesn't have a singular cause but a history of trauma is definitely a contributing factor to the development of substance use disorder.

For those dealing with the brain changes associated with a history of trauma, the little inconveniences and discomforts of everyday life can be truly unbearable. For others, just leaving the house means facing terrifying triggers that remind them of a traumatic event.

Without healthy coping techniques, it is all too easy to rely on substances to help mitigate the negative emotions and unpleasant bodily responses associated with an overactive amygdala. 

What’s more, when emotional regulation is impaired, communication and relationships suffer. This means that those with a history of trauma often find themselves without a healthy support network to turn to during difficult times. In these cases, isolation can be another big contributor to the development of SUD.  

We’re Here to Help 

If you or a loved one is suffering from trauma-related SUD, the team at Shanti Recovery and Wellness can help. Reach out today to learn about the local, evidence-based, individualized treatment program our tight-knit team of medical professionals and mental health experts can customize especially for you. 

Call us today at (503) 206-8850.

Again, if you need immediate help because you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, reach out to Lines for Life right away. Local, understanding people are available to listen 24/7. Their number is 800-273-8255.