The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction

April 17, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

 This blog may trigger some people. If you need emotional support to deal with a concern or feeling or are looking for information on mental health resources or services call 310Mental Health Support at 310-6789 (no area code required).  

Deeply painful or disturbing experiences can have long-lasting effects on people. They can damage a person’s confidence, well-being and their ability to manage their emotions and relationships, making it harder to trust and get support. These emotional and psychological imprints are known as trauma.

Trauma can come from many sources, such as adverse childhood experiences, accidents, sexual assault, sudden unexpected loss, intergenerational events, racism, and discrimination. Some of these events can lead to or make other traumatic experiences worse. And they can lead a person to look for ways to cope with the negative effects of trauma, including through substance use.  

Substance use, depression and anxiety are very common responses to experiences of trauma or violence. - Trauma-Informed Practice & the Opioid Crisis: A Discussion Guide for Health Care and Social Service Providers

Rose’s story

Rose has lived experience of substance use. In a research project that aimed to understand the perspectives and experiences of people who use drugs, Rose connected her substance use to traumatic events in her life.

"I started using drugs many years ago,” Rose reflects. “My husband abused me for 38 years… all kinds of abuse… and after he died, I was doing horribly.”

“Even though there was abuse, 38 years is a long time. When he died, I felt like I had half a heart.”

“That’s why I do what I do now. I don’t want to think about the bad past memories.”

Stories like Rose’s are common, especially for women, says Nancy Poole, Director of the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, who highlights the benefits of raising awareness of the link between trauma and substance use.

“Life circumstances and the effects of substances combine to make people vulnerable to addiction,” says Nancy. “Understanding the influence and effects of trauma can make a huge difference in increasing compassion for people with substance use concerns, and improve our approach to health promotion, harm reduction, treatment and ongoing support for people experiencing addiction.”

How this can make a difference

By being aware that some people’s pasts are characterized by fear and trauma, we can create future pathways of respect and understanding, without having to force them to relive these experiences.

We can help people understand that addiction is complicated, and the result of circumstances, not choices.

And we can replace judgement and stigma of drug use with compassion for people who use drugs.

These transformations can save lives.

Have you experienced trauma or challenges related substance use? You are not alone, help is available:

  • Call 1-800-563-0808 (toll-free) for confidential support from VictimLinkBC. This resource provides information and referral services to all victims of crime and immediate crisis support to victims of family and sexual violence. Available 24 hours a day.
  • Call 8-1-1 speak to a health service navigator, who can help you find health information and services, or visit HealthLink BC Service Finder to search for services by region or area of practice.
  • Find more services that support people experiencing trauma and abuse here.