How Can Trauma-Informed Care Treat Addiction?

Byline: Content reviewed by Gillian Bieler, LCSW, CSAT, Clinical Director

Many people have experienced an event at some point in their lives that they describe as “traumatic.” Traumatic experiences can have serious consequences for a person’s long-term well-being, including acting as the trigger for the development of an addiction. Openly acknowledging a patient’s trauma and helping them process the past can improve mental health and addiction recovery outcomes.

What Is Trauma?

To understand what trauma-informed care entails, trauma itself needs to be explained. A person who has endured trauma experienced something that was physically and/or psychologically harmful to their well-being. Trauma can have long-lasting impacts on physical and mental health, particularly when the brain is still developing in childhood. The three forms of trauma are:

  • Acute trauma: the result of a single incident like witnessing a violent event or the impacts of a natural disaster.
  • Chronic trauma: the result of a series of events like domestic abuse or bullying.
  • Complex trauma: the result of exposure to a combination of circumstances like prolonged neglect and mental illness within the family.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of repeated trauma, as their brains are still developing. Chronic and complex trauma can cause the brain to remain in a heightened state of stress. This can alter a child’s long-term behavioral, emotional, and cognitive functioning to maintain and promote survival. Some adult victims of childhood abuse, for instance, feel like they are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, even when the situation does not call for it.

Negative Impacts Associated With Trauma

The CDC highlights Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—potentially traumatic events that occur during childhood—as being associated with a number of negative impacts involving health, life opportunities, and overall well-being. ACEs may impact a person’s educational experience, access to job opportunities, and earning potential. A higher number of traumatic experiences during childhood are associated with a greater risk of the following:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Depression
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Smoking and illicit drug use
  • Self-harm & suicide attempts
  • Chronic lung, heart and liver disease

There is a significant connection between ACEs and chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use in adulthood. However, not everyone experiences trauma in childhood. Traumatization can occur in adulthood as with victims of domestic abuse, veterans who fought in a war, and in many other instances. Such individuals may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and are vulnerable to these consequences of trauma, too.

What Is Trauma-Informed Care?

While everyone responds differently to trauma, it is not uncommon to seek psychological relief by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. That is why addiction treatment centers like Casa Palmera utilize a trauma-informed approach. Trauma-informed care is an approach to treating health conditions including addiction and mental health. This is done by explicitly acknowledging a patient’s life experiences that may have contributed to their current circumstances.

Instead of treating a patient as if something is “wrong” with them, a clinician trained in trauma-informed care will focus on learning about what happened to the patient during childhood or adulthood. According to SAMSHA, the responsibility is on the organization for the practicing clinicians to:

  • Realize the possible impact of trauma has had on a patient
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in patients, families, and staff
  • Understand that there are many potential pathways for recovery
  • Avoid creating a clinical environment that may re-traumatize a patient
  • Integrate this knowledge into the organizational culture

Core Principles of Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care operates within the purview of five core principles. The first is patient empowerment. This principle serves to leverage a patient’s strengths to empower them in participating in the development of their treatment program. The second principle is choice, meaning that patients will be informed about treatment options so they can make a decision about what they prefer.

Collaboration, the third principle, is cultivated between the patient, their family, and the health care team. Next is safety, which involves creating a physically and emotionally safe health care environment for patients to avoid retraumatization. The final principle is trustworthiness. The idea for this one is that clinicians will ensure their patient has clear expectations regarding the details of their treatment including who will provide services and how this will be done.

Getting Help for Addiction

The misuse of substances is strongly related to underlying mental health conditions that are often the result of traumatic life events. One example comes from a study of 587 urban primary care patients in Atlanta, Georgia. The researchers found high rates of lifetime dependence on alcohol (39%), cocaine (34.1%), heroin/opiates (6.2%), and marijuana (44.8%) in this “highly traumatized population.” For cocaine use, in particular, the level of substance use was strongly correlated with levels of childhood abuse and current PTSD symptoms.

Treating addiction without addressing underlying trauma may impede addiction recovery. Finding a facility that will acknowledge an individual’s past encounters and empower them to make informed decisions about their treatment and recovery is essential in getting the help they need and deserve.

Traumatization in childhood or adulthood can have serious physical and mental health consequences. Addiction is an especially prominent concern among trauma victims. Trauma-informed care is a treatment approach that recognizes a patient’s traumatic life experiences and involves active measures to administer treatment in a respectful and non-triggering way. It grants patients the autonomy to make sound decisions regarding their treatment and recovery. Casa Palmera is an addiction treatment facility located in West Los Angeles. We utilize a trauma-informed care approach for a number of important reasons, one being that trauma is often a motivating factor in addiction. Treating addiction at its source is critical. Once we evaluate a patient for underlying conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, we can begin to discuss available treatment options. If you or someone you know is struggling with substances due to trauma or otherwise, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Learn how we can help by contacting us today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.