There is long standing research to suggest a strong relationship between trauma and addiction. In this article, we will attempt to unpack the various forms of trauma, the neurological structures involved and how this can lead to substance use. 


Big T vs. Little t Trauma


To start, trauma specialists usually categorize traumatic events as big T trauma and little t trauma, both of which can lead to mental health problems and subsequently, substance abuse disorder. Big T trauma is what most people think of when considering traumatic events and might include one or more of the following:

  • Domestic violence
  • Childhood neglect or abuse
  • Physical abuse or assault
  • Sexual abuse or assault
  • Verbal, mental and or emotional abuse
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Military service or other combat situations
  • Surviving a severe accident (i.e. car, fire, etc…)


On the other hand, little t trauma is much more subtle and tends to build up over time causing a diagnosis of PTSD because one is constantly reliving their traumatic or stressing events. Some of the most prevalent example of little t trauma include, but are not limited to:

  • Living in poverty or extremely poor conditions
  • Bullying or shaming by caregivers, peers, and or teachers 
  • Growing up in an environment where your emotions are suppressed 
  • Chronic illness
  • Physical and or social isolation


How Does Trauma Impact The Brain?


Each of these types of trauma create new neural pathways throughout the brain that connect to the neurological areas responsible for memories (hippocampus), emotions and thoughtful processing (frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, respectively). Moreover, trauma activates the parasympathetic nervous system and triggers something called the “fight or flight” response. This results in increased cortisol and adrenaline in the brain and are very helpful when having to respond to an emergency but after prolonged activation, it can be very harmful and lead to PTSD and other mental health disorders.


Additionally, when someone relives their traumatic experiences, they activate and strengthen the neural pathways associated with the event(s), making it more difficult to reverse over time. Fortunately, there’s neuroplasticity, which simply means that neurological pathways can change over time. Through various forms of therapy, individuals who experience trauma can slowly begin to heal.


If a person fails to address past trauma, they are more likely to form maladaptive behaviors. These include, eating disorders, uncontrolled emotional or physical outburst, and increased use of substances to help cope. Drug and alcohol addiction provide individuals with a means to disrupt their memories, thoughts and difficult emotions. For this reason, drugs provide an excellent it solution to help those who struggle with addressing their traumatic experiences.


If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, contact us today to learn how we can help!