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The Connection Between Trauma and Substance Use


You might be surprised to learn that approximately 21.6% of Canadians (about 6 million people) will meet the criteria for a substance use disorder during their lifetime. While this number is substantial, it is estimated that 76% of Canadians report having experienced some form of trauma or traumatic event during their lifetime. But the question is, is there a connection between these two occurrences?

Research has shown that trauma is a strong risk factor for the development of a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Substance use and trauma are closely linked, where individuals who experience trauma are more likely to develop a SUD, and those with SUDs are more likely to experience a traumatic event. This can create a dangerous and vicious cycle of further trauma and increased substance use.

What is it that connects these two phenomena? And what can be done to prevent and avoid getting caught in the cycle.

The Facts on Trauma and SUDs

The connection between SUDs and trauma is not unique to a specific population, a specific type of trauma or a specific substance. Examples of include:

  • While the lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the general Canadian population is approximately 9.2%, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among those with a SUD is estimated to be between 26 and 52%.
  • 27.9% of women with a history of PTSD reported problems with substance use at some point in their lifetime compared to 10.55% of women without PTSD.
  • Men and women who have experienced sexual abuse have higher overall rates of substance use disorders.


Additionally, when a person is experiencing distress due to both traumatic stress and substance use, they will often have other psychological or physical conditions, including anxiety, mood disorders, heart disease, and chronic pain.

An important thing to note; you do not need to be diagnosed with PTSD for trauma to increase your risk of substance use and SUDs. Even mildly traumatic events can become lifetime risk factors.

Potential Connections to Substance Use

Why is there such a strong connection between trauma and substance use? Throughout the 1990s, research indicated a few possible explanations, focusing on those who were diagnosed with PTSD:

  • Self-medication: Persons experiencing PTSD engage in substance use to try to cope with or mask their symptoms.
  • Higher-risk lifestyle: Persons with SUDs may be more prone to traumatic events as a result of the lifestyle choices associated with substance use.


The self-medication scenario is likely to be the most measurable and likely link between trauma and the development and progression of a SUD.

Can Trauma and Substance Use Disorder Be Treated Together?

In short, yes. Substance use rehabilitation programs understand the co-occurrence of SUDs, trauma, and mental illness. As such, programs have been designed to help you in your recovery through comprehensive and holistic approaches. An integral part of substance recovery programs is based in therapy, improving mental health, treating mental illness, and reconciling painful trauma.

How Pacifica Addresses Trauma and Substance Use?

Pacifica participates in collaborative decision-making, and person-centred treatment, that includes trauma-specific program offerings. Pacifica fosters an environment where both community members and our interdisciplinary team are active participants in the Pacifica ecosystem.

Together, our team places an emphasis on a recovery mindset, all while building resiliency. Pacifica offers a Resiliency & Trauma program that is uniquely designed to help community members face and overcome these challenging conditions.

Substance Use Recovery Programs Available in Vancouver, BC

If you or a loved one have questions about the programs offered at Pacifica Treatment Centre, our team is standing by to help in any way we can. Call our office to speak with a member of our team or connect with us online through our contact page!

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