Understanding Trauma and Substance Abuse in Women

women and trauma

Understanding Trauma and Substance Abuse in Women

DISCLOSURE: Please keep in mind that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase I will earn a commission. I link to these companies and their products because of their quality and not because of the commission I receive from your purchases. The decision is yours.

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Research suggests that there is  a strong correlation between trauma and substance abuse in women. This article will explore the nature of trauma, and it’s relationship to drug and alcohol abuse.

It is estimated that about 50% of all people will experience at least one significant traumatic event during their lifetimes. Trauma can come in many forms, including terrorism, war, natural disasters, a house fire, a car accident, and many more. In addition, there are several forms of trauma that are more common for women, including rape, domestic violence, and loss of a pregnancy.

The effects of trauma can be profound, with 8% of trauma survivors developing some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those diagnosed with PTSD often experience nightmares, intense fear and anxiety, anger, shame, isolation, insomnia, suicidal ideation, and difficulty maintaining intimate relationships. This can be exacerbated if the individuals also develop or already experience depression or anxiety. One often-overlooked symptom of trauma in women is the development of a substance use disorder.

Substance Use and Trauma: The Facts

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), nearly 80% of women who seek treatment for substance use report experience at least one instance of sexual or physical assault. In addition, 72% reported being emotionally abused Several studies have also indicated that experiencing trauma dramatically increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder in the future (Felitti et al., 1998; Messina & Grella,.)

Often, women who have experienced trauma begin abusing drugs they obtained during treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD, or physical pain. This is especially true in cases of women who use benzodiazepines and opioids. In other cases, some women may turn to illicit drugs as a way to self-medicate from physical and emotional pain following a traumatic experience. Finally, some women experience abuse, and in particular sexual abuse, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

A New Paradigm: Trauma-Informed Care for Substance Abuse Treatment 

Most substance abuse treatment protocols were developed to address drug addiction in men. Historically, these treatment protocols were single-focused and addressed only substance abuse. However, it has recently become clear that those same treatment protocols may be ineffective when used for women unless treatment also addresses the reality that many women who abuse drugs or alcohol have experienced sexual or physical abuse and violence.

Trauma-informed care has many facets. In addition to acknowledging the impact of traumatic experiences on women, it is also important that substance use treatment protocols and programs that do not trigger trauma reactions or cause re-traumatization. This involves ensuring that programs that provide rehab for women are safe places where women will not face additional sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or threats of abuse.

Those involved in substance use treatment, including doctors, therapists, and group leaders need to be trained in trauma-informed care. The coping strategies of women who have experienced trauma may be different from those typically seen in substance abuse treatment programs designed for men. It is important that counselors and staff understand trauma reactions and coping strategies and help support women in coping with their trauma and managing their symptoms.

Three-Stage Model for Trauma Recovery & Treatment

Psychiatrist Judith Herman developed a three-stage model for trauma recovery that is well-adapted for use in substance use treatment protocols for women. In stage one, safety, a woman’s primary need is to find safety. Due to the trauma they have experienced, they often do not feel safe in their homes, their communities, or even in their own bodies. They may also not feel safe around their counselors and treatment providers. 

Treatment facilities must be safe places free from all types of abuse. In addition, it is important to ensure that boundaries between consumers and staff, as well as peers, are clear and respected. Finally, in stage one, treatment providers must make sure that all safety concerns are addressed. For example, if the woman is a victim of domestic violence, before she can begin to recover from substance abuse, she must receive help to address the domestic violence concerns. 

In stage two, Remembrance and Mourning, women can begin working through the emotions and realities of their trauma experience in addition to addressing their substance abuse. At this stage, group counseling is often effective due to the support received by others that have experienced similar situations. In stage two, women should also receive support and care to help prevent relapse; at this stage they are better able to realize the scope of loss and trauma in their lives and need to develop healthy coping strategies. 

Stage three, Reconnection, takes place during ongoing recovery from substance abuse. During this stage, recovery focuses on maintaining sobriety and rebuilding lives. Women should be supported in developing healthy relationships, securing employment or working on job skills, and engaging in recreational and community activities that help them feel a sense of purpose and value.

Above all, it is important to remember that without taking a holistic approach to substance abuse treatment that addresses a woman’s history of trauma and abuse, it is difficult for drug addiction treatment to be successful. However, when women are given safe and supportive environments in which to heal from traumatic pasts, they are often able to recover from their drug or alcohol addiction.



Originally posted 2019-07-13 11:06:01.

“We all know that it’s hard to make self-care a priority. That’s why I’m proud to be an affiliate of BetterHelp and TalkSpace. Both offer affordable, confidential, and effective online counseling for a low monthly fee. You can cancel any time. Click on the sponsored links above to get your discounted rate.” — Randy Withers, LCMHC – Managing Editor

About The Author

Dale Vernor

Dale Vernor

Dale Vernor is a writer and researcher in the fields of mental health and substance abuse. After a battle with addiction Dale was able to find sobriety and become the first in his family to earn a Bachelor's degree. Dale enjoys writing about mental health and addiction so that more people can understand these highly stigmatized issues. When not working you can look for Dale at your local basketball court.


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This article was medically reviewed for accuracy by Randy Withers, MA, NCC, LPCMHC, LCAS. He is the Managing Editor of Blunt Therapy and a practicing psychotherapist.

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