How Unaddressed Trauma Leads to Relapse, and What You Can Do About It

Drug and alcohol abuse often stems from a need for escape. When you experience trauma, either in your childhood or as an adult, the pain of that experience stays with you for the rest of your life. With the right treatment and care, you can manage that pain in a way that turns it from a deafening scream into an occasional whisper. Unfortunately, many people who experience the various forms of trauma aren’t made aware of or provided the resources available to them, and instead turn to drugs and alcohol as a means to numb themselves and prevent intrusive memories of trauma. Unfortunately, this process of self-medication often leads to addiction. When someone struggling with substance abuse seeks treatment or decides to quit on their own, it is common to experience a relapse. This is especially true in cases where past trauma hasn’t been sufficiently addressed.  Working through a painful past with the right coping mechanisms and a strategy for handling triggers is one of the most important aspects of a lasting recovery.

A Storied Past Can Present Additional Challenges

Achieving lifelong recovery from addiction is a more complex process for those with traumatic personal histories. While everyone’s story is uniquely complicated, every person that lives with trauma endures a heightened risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. Trauma can take many forms, including experiences that many people don’t recognize as trauma and are therefore unaware of their own need to work through the pain of their past. Trauma is defined as an event or a series of events that causes physical or emotional harm and eventually leads to lasting physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual hardships.

The most common cases of unaddressed trauma take the form of childhood abuse or neglect. This includes physical and sexual abuse, as well as witnessing abuse in the form of domestic violence. Trauma can also occur when a child loses a sibling or caregiver or survives a natural disaster. While the connection between childhood trauma and mental illness has long been established, studies in recent years have drawn a clear association between a traumatic history and the likelihood of substance abuse.  One study conducted in 2010 (, found that in a group of “highly traumatized individuals,” nearly 40 percent of them were dependent on either alcohol or cocaine. The same study surveyed adolescents being treated for substance abuse and found that nearly 70 percent of them had dealt with childhood trauma. These numbers are much higher than that of the general population, and we can clearly deduce that addiction is often used to cope with painful memories and the emotions they create.

Childhood trauma is particularly detrimental to a person’s lifelong well-being due to the physical structure of the brain in childhood and adolescence. Studies conducted on trauma survivors found that there was a decrease in white and grey matter, impairing cognitive ability and critical emotional processes in the brain. Traumatic experiences may also affect the brain in a way that limits decision-making abilities. Recent research has even proven that the effect on a child’s brain is the same whether they are directly abused or witness domestic abuse in the household. When it comes to addiction, these major developmental changes in the brain may lead to a lack of impulse control and an inability to regulate emotions.  

What Role Does Trauma Play In Relapse?

The most common way past trauma can lead to relapse is if you attempt to fight your addiction without professional help. Most treatment programs involve a certain degree of cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling that address your personal history and underlying emotions that may prevent recovery. CBT involves investigating your experiences and thought patterns, and determining how to reframe your thoughts in a productive way rather than to be controlled by negative self-talk. A truly holistic treatment program will address your mental, physical, and spiritual needs so that you can heal from the inside out.

You may have already completed a treatment program that provided you with some level of counseling and therapy techniques. If you continue to relapse after treatment, it may be time to seek alternate care or enter an intensive long-term treatment program. Trauma may not be properly addressed due to a lack of successful and informed techniques or may require a longer duration of treatment. High-quality care should include a team of knowledgeable, compassionate professionals who can help you explore your past and give you the tools to cope with painful memories and emotions.  

No matter your reason for relapse, it is important to realize that it does not mean you have failed.  Each attempt at lifelong sobriety is a learning experience and a step in the right direction, and given the right support and the necessary tools for recovery, the next attempt can be the one that lasts.


At Burning Tree, we know addiction treatment is not one-size-fits-all, and everyone is fighting a unique battle. We specialize in treating clients with a history of relapse, employing a wide range of successful techniques and methodologies in a compassionate environment. Here you will find a culture of honesty and accountability in which they will learn a new way to live, and ultimately foster a lifetime of sobriety and wellness. For more information, call us now at 866-287-2877.


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