Trauma-Informed Care for Addiction Recovery

Trauma-informed care for substance use disorder recovery is a process in which a therapist works with an individual to promote emotional healing from a traumatic experience. Trauma is often an underlying cause of substance use disorder (SUD). For that reason, trauma therapy can be a successful treatment for SUD because it helps people develop positive ways to cope with the residual feelings and emotions associated with their trauma that do not include substance use. It is most effective when used alongside other treatment methods in treating trauma-associated SUD.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is the effect on a person after they witness, experience, or feel threatened by an overwhelming event or events. It is an individual’s response to circumstances that accompanied the event(s), such as physical harm, desperation, fear, helplessness, potential death, and more. While trauma can cause intense fear, horror, and helplessness that can endure for some time, the traumatic response is the brain’s normal reaction to abnormal events.

The effects of trauma on the brain can be remarkably like other emotional conditions like depression or anxiety. In many cases, depression and anxiety have underlying causes that relate back to trauma. Both trauma and these mood disorders may include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. Consequently, trauma is also often the root cause of SUD.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes the concept of the brain’s reaction to trauma as the “three Es:” event, experience, and effects. These experiences can have residual mental, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual effects.

The Importance of Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-Informed Care

Sometimes traumatic events lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In cases of PTSD, the trauma response is so severe that the individual experiences intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, serious distress at triggers, and even physical effects like sweating, shaking, and vomiting. Because both positive and negative experiences affect the growth of the brain, the long-lasting effects of PTSD can leave one feeling as if they will never be safe.

Trauma and PTSD are both considered the lingering negative feelings associated with the memory of trauma, and these effects can lead many people to develop a SUD. People may turn to substance use because it temporarily relieves the symptomatic pain of trauma or symptoms associated with PTSD, such as insomnia, anxiety, and other common physical manifestations. That’s why it is so important to treat trauma alongside SUD with trauma-informed care. However, many people who suffer from SUD do not disclose their personal trauma during treatment because it is too painful, because they are ashamed, because they don’t remember it, or because they don’t realize it is affecting their behavioral health.

What Is Trauma-Informed Care?

Trauma-informed care means a person’s treatment plan has been created with a framework that ensures both patient and provider consider past traumatic experiences and how they continue to impact the person. To begin to uncover the full extent of someone’s trauma in therapy, a trauma-informed environment must be established. Because many people have difficulty maintaining an open and healthy relationship with their therapists, trauma-informed care seeks to bridge that gap. When trauma-informed care is practiced, patients are more likely to develop a trusting and deeper relationship with healthcare providers, thus greatly increasing their chances of successful treatment and long-term recovery.

The key requirements of a trauma-informed setting include the following:

  • Meeting the person’s needs in a safe, collaborative, and compassionate manner
  • Establishing trust and transparency
  • Preventing treatment from retraumatizing the person
  • Building on the person’s resilience and strengths in the context of their communities and environments; shared support
  • Endorsing trauma-informed core principles throughout the therapy environment via consultation, support, supervision, and staff
Trauma-informed care takes the focus off what is wrong with someone and instead addresses what happened. Trauma-informed means mental healthcare professionals look at the whole picture, including past and present situations, to administer more effective and comprehensive treatment. In doing so, the outcome of treatment improves significantly and decreases the overall time and resources necessary for healing.

What Is Trauma Therapy?

Trauma therapy is a form of treatment that involves talking through the mental and emotional consequences of trauma. It recognizes and emphasizes an understanding of how the traumatic event impacted the individual’s behavioral responses. The aim of trauma therapy is to teach the individual coping skills and strategies to help them understand, cope with, and process the emotions and memories associated with the traumatic event.

It also aims to enable the patient to create and maintain a healthy and adaptive purpose of the experience he/she went through. For example, SAMHSA’s follow-up to the “Three Es” of trauma is the “Four Rs” of trauma therapy: realize, recognize, respond, and resist re-traumatization.

What Are the Benefits of Trauma Therapy?

Trauma therapy helps people make sense of traumatic events. It also teaches skills so all involved can better handle the negative feelings, thoughts, and memories tied to the trauma. For this reason, trauma therapy can be extremely helpful in treating PTSD-related SUD and trauma-related SUD. The hope is that people are better equipped with coping skills after receiving trauma therapy and are less likely to relapse and more likely to stay in recovery long-term.

Through processing the pain of trauma, people can experience freedom from the PTSD and SUD that suppressed them in the past. By eliminating the threat of trauma, those suffering from SUD will be able to process the negative feelings and emotions associated with it. This, in turn, prevents substance use to mask the pain and cope with the emotions from the trauma.

How Does Trauma Therapy Help with Addiction Recovery?

As mentioned, many people experience SUD as the result of attempts to cope with past trauma. For example, more than half of women in treatment for SUD report childhood trauma. Thus, it is critical to address the fact that an individual may have undergone trauma that is potentially tied to their diagnosis of SUD. By addressing the traumas that facilitate SUD, people can break down the behavior that leads to substance use.

In recovery, it is important to address the trauma and learn the skills to cope with its lingering impact. Trauma-informed care for substance use disorder recovery works to desensitize people to the traumatic event and instill skills that will help them process the emotions and feelings associated with it. Then, the individual can use these alternative strategies instead of substance use to address future triggers and emotions. However, if the underlying cause of the SUD isn’t addressed, there is a greater potential for relapse.

What Are Some of the Techniques Used in Trauma Therapy?


Trauma therapists are capable of using many techniques to address and treat trauma. These are the most common:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
  • Exposure therapy
  • Psychopharmacology

How Does Trauma Therapy Help Heal the Mind and Body?

Trauma therapy helps heal the mind and body by helping people deal with traumatic events so it does not continue to influence them negatively. It aims to help people better understand their trauma and process it differently. The goal of trauma therapy is not to forget what happened but rather to find a meaningful way to accept it and move forward with better ways to cope with the associated feelings.

Trauma therapy aims to heal and restore a person’s spirit, mind, body, and soul. The brain can change based on experiences and events, including those that result from traumatic incidents. Healing the brain through trauma therapy can help those suffering from SUD overcome the harmful impacts of past experiences. This is accomplished by retraining the mind to use alternative coping skills to deal with and process the pain of trauma.

What Are Some of the Challenges of Trauma Therapy?

Trauma therapy can be challenging for both therapists and clients. It is often difficult to initiate this treatment because the person must first feel safe opening up and must have trust in the therapist to do so. That means the therapist must create a place that feels safe. A safe place can be hard to create for people who are defensive about their trauma history and resist working through it.

In addition, during the process of working through trauma, people experience intense emotions, especially when remembering traumatic events and conversations. This can be extremely difficult and painful. For this reason, it is important to have a strong support system in place before starting trauma therapy.

Trauma Therapy FAQ

If you or a loved one are about to begin trauma-informed SUD treatment that includes trauma therapy, you likely have several questions about what to expect.

Here are the answers to some of the most common questions:

What Are Some of the Things I Can Do to Support My Loved One in Trauma Therapy?

One of the most powerful ways friends and family members can support a loved one’s healing during trauma therapy is to educate themselves about trauma and its impact. Additionally, seek to understand what the process of trauma therapy entails.

Trauma therapy can be very difficult for the participant. As such, it can also be a challenging time for the friends and family members who are supporting them. It is important for loved ones to know that it is normal to feel overwhelmed at times, considering what their loved one is going through. Most importantly, though, loved ones can help by just being there and being patient.

How can Trauma Therapy Help Me Heal from My Addiction?

Trauma therapy is a specialized form of therapy that helps resolve the emotional experiences and issues caused by trauma. Trauma therapy can help someone with SUD by helping them better understand the nature of their trauma and teaching them skills to deal with painful memories, feelings, and events instead of turning to substance use to cope.

When other successful treatment methods are used in conjunction with trauma therapy, people have a better chance of healing from trauma. Similarly, by addressing the symptoms that contribute to their SUD, they have a better chance of lasting success in recovery.

What Should I Expect from Trauma Therapy?

The first step in trauma therapy is to establish a safe place and a trusting relationship between you (or your loved one) and the therapist. Only then will you be asked to talk about traumatic experiences. This step is imperative for you to have success in talking through the trauma and processing it.

When you feel safe, treatment will involve the therapist asking you to recall the traumatic experience in detail. This can include a detailed description of what happened, as well as detailed descriptions of emotions and thoughts you experienced at the time of the event. The therapist will often ask these questions repeatedly throughout therapy to better understand how the event affected and continues to affect you.

This is done using non-invasive methods such as meditation, imagery, hypnosis, and relaxation exercises, as well as other specific therapies. The therapist helps you work through the experiences to help you develop and practice new ways of coping. The hope is that you can use these strategies in place of substances to lead a more peaceful and fulfilling life.

How Long Does Trauma Therapy Take?

While the length of therapy can vary a great deal, most clients experience profound results in 6-8 sessions. For those who have experienced significant trauma, it is normal for trauma therapy to take longer. This is because there may be multiple events you need to process. The actual time it will take to complete trauma therapy depends on the individual.

How Do I Know if I Need Trauma Therapy?

Individuals suffering from SUD or PTSD, or both, and who have experienced difficulties due to abuse, neglect, loss of someone close to them, or another traumatic event, would benefit from trauma therapy. Those who believe they may benefit from working with a psychotherapist can call Illuminate Recovery to schedule an appointment to discuss these concerns and explore whether trauma therapy is an appropriate course of action at this time.

Trauma-Informed Care Is a Part of Personalized Treatment

What Does It Cost to Go to Rehab?

It takes time to heal from trauma and SUD. Illuminate Recovery therapists are trained in trauma-informed care for substance use disorder recovery and are prepared to help you or your loved one deal with the underlying trauma behind SUD. We do so with a holistic treatment that addresses more than just SUD.

When you arrive at Illuminate Recovery, our experts will work with you to create an individual therapy program that includes multiple treatment methods specifically customized for your needs. Individuals suffering from SUD have a greater chance of a successful recovery with comprehensive, trauma-informed therapy. Contact Illuminate Recovery today to learn more about how trauma therapy can help you illuminate the road to recovery.




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  3. Cohen, J. A., Mannarino, A. P., & Deblinger, E. (2012). Trauma-focused CBT for children and adolescents: Treatment applications. Psychiatric Clinics, 35(2), 225-256. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2012.03.001
  4. Brewin, C. R., Lanius, R. A., Novac, A., Schnyder, U., & Galea, S. (Eds.). (2017). Posttraumatic stress disorder: Scientific and professional dimensions. Retrieved from
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