March 15, 2023 By Leah Malone

The Value of Trauma-Informed Treatment for Recovery


Trauma plays a well-known role in the development of addictive behaviors and substance use disorder (SUD). Despite this, not all treatment facilities adopt nor utilize empathetic approaches when treating trauma or substance abuse. When a facility offers trauma-informed treatment, it indicates that they are passionate about providing a safe and supportive atmosphere to clients to enable healing. Additionally, trauma-informed treatment works to reduce retraumatization when addressing and overcoming trauma.

There is lasting value in trauma-informed treatment, especially for addiction recovery. Becoming familiar with what this type of treatment approach is and how it can benefit an individual’s recovery journey can be instrumental for not only achieving sobriety but also for experiencing lasting transformation in personal growth and well-being. 

Trauma and Addiction

There is an inevitable link that lies between unresolved trauma and the development of addiction. However, many individuals who seek addiction treatment are unaware of this link. Once an individual becomes aware of their problematic substance abuse and its consequences, they may feel compelled to participate in treatment to achieve sobriety. Yet, because of the role that trauma often plays in substance abuse, trauma must be addressed and overcome in treatment to maintain lasting abstinence. 

When Voluntary Substance Use Becomes Compulsive

There are many reasons why an individual may start using alcohol or drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), people may take drugs in an effort to:

  • To feel good: such as having a drink after a long day at work
  • To feel better: such as using marijuana to self-medicate
  • To do better: such as using a stimulant to improve focus and concentration
  • To ease curiosity and social pressure: such as taking a substance to experience its subjective effects 

When an individual is first introduced to alcohol and other drugs, their initial decision to use them is likely voluntary. However, exposure to the effects of chemical substances can interfere with brain structure and associated functioning. These brain changes can make an individual more vulnerable to using substances repeatedly in an attempt to achieve a desired high. 

Traumatic experiences also interfere with an individual’s brain structure and functioning. Everyone responds to trauma differently. Some people may experience a dysregulated nervous system, causing them to constantly feel on edge. Others may develop fears and phobias, causing them to withdraw from social situations. Regardless of the subjective effects of trauma, many individuals will turn to alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to self-medicate their symptoms. 

As a result, voluntary substance use can quickly develop into substance dependence and, eventually, addiction. Still, most people are unaware that their physical or emotional symptoms are a direct cause of their trauma. It is important to understand that trauma has long-lasting effects. Even childhood trauma can be stored in the body well throughout adulthood if left unresolved or unaddressed. 

What Is Trauma-Informed Treatment?

Facilities that utilize trauma-informed treatment assume that every client who enters treatment has encountered some kind of trauma throughout their life. Staff members at these facilities are well-versed in the short- and long-term effects of trauma and are able to recognize the widespread impact of trauma on the recovery community. 

As there is no one-size-fits-all for addiction treatment, there is no one-size-fits-all for trauma-informed treatment. Rather, trauma-informed treatment requires intimate awareness, sensitivity, readjustment (of treatment plans), and compassion toward clients and their past experiences. Programs may use a variety of interventions in addition to a trauma-informed approach to helping clients achieve and sustain sobriety from substance abuse. 

The Six Guiding Principles of Trauma-Informed Treatment

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights the six principles that guide trauma-informed treatment. These principles were originally developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The six guiding principles include:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness & transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration & mutuality
  5. Empowerment & choice
  6. Cultural, historical & gender issues

According to a publication by SAMHSA, “A trauma-informed approach seeks to resist re-traumatization of clients as well as staff… Staff who work within a trauma-informed environment are taught to recognize how organizational practices may trigger painful memories and re-traumatize clients with trauma histories.” 

Unfortunately, many well-known treatment interventions unintentionally trigger clients into reliving their past traumas. One of the many benefits of trauma-informed treatment is that staff members work diligently to avoid retraumatizing clients through constant awareness, check-ins, empathy, and collaboration. 

Benefits of Trauma-Informed Treatment

In addition to eliminating triggers and the potential for retraumatization, trauma-informed treatment has many benefits for addiction recovery. These include the following:

Client Empowerment

Clients who use trauma-informed treatment tend to feel more empowered during their recovery journey. For example, clients can feel encouraged and empowered by therapists and other staff members to maintain lasting recovery efforts. Trauma-informed care emphasizes the power of collaboration and mutuality (guiding principle #4) to prevent clients from feeling inferior. Since trauma already makes an individual feel inferior or less than others, this treatment approach can encourage an individual to feel powerful over their own life experiences and choices. 

Establishing Client Safety and Control

Another benefit of trauma-informed treatment is that it can enable clients to respond to crises more effectively. The treatment accomplishes this by helping individuals become more aware of their past trauma and conditioned responses. It also helps individuals to prepare for future conflict, hardship, and other challenges before they occur. This begins with establishing client safety in treatment (guiding principle #1) and continues well throughout sobriety by encouraging a client to find safety and refuge in a variety of valuable coping mechanisms.

Effective recovery from substance abuse requires individuals to address and overcome past trauma. Trauma-informed treatment approaches assume that every client entering treatment has encountered some type of trauma in their life. This approach actively reduces the potential of retraumatization while empowering clients to gain control and power over their thoughts, emotions, and reactive behaviors. Grace Recovery offers transitional living homes for women in recovery from substance use disorder, trauma, and other mental health disorders. Our treatment programs and services are built upon a foundation of trauma-informed care. We are passionate about helping our clients build self-sufficient, prosperous, and meaningful lives in sobriety. To learn more about our programs and homes, call us today at (737) 237-9663.

About Author

Leah Malone

Learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings can be painful and disturbing at times. When Leah was able to see her behavior patterns and decided there was enough pain to be disturbed, she became motivated to make changes and accept the work that needed to be done to heal. She needed direction and had no clue how to heal on her own. Through a connection with God, authentic connection with others, honesty, willingness, and humility, Leah is now in recovery from addiction and trauma.

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