Addiction & Trauma

Q&A with Michelle Cooper, PhD


In talking about trauma, what kinds of experiences fall into that category?

“Physical, verbal, and/or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, PTSD, but also also traumatic events that occur over the course of a lifetime: the sudden death of someone close, complicated grief, witnessing violence, a car accident, or the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness or debilitating condition.

“So many people who seek treatment for drug and alcohol addiction began to abuse substances as a way to cope. They’ve had traumatic experiences and need to manage the negative symptoms associated with trauma exposure. For example, it’s estimated that 50 percent to as much as 96 percent of people seeking treatment for substance abuse report experiencing some major traumatic event in their lifetime.”


How does addressing trauma connect with addiction treatment?

“Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction, writes, ‘Don’t ask why the addiction; ask why the pain.’  This orientation deeply shapes my focus in addressing trauma in addictions work.  Recognizing that trauma often co-occurs with addictions is best practice, and an essential aspect of treating addictions in a comprehensive, holistic way. Addressing trauma and addictions recovery simultaneously from a standpoint of integration and compassion can interrupt the cycle of fragmentation and isolation the trauma experience so often engenders.”


What does Oxford Treatment Center’s trauma track look like for patients?

“When staff counselors identify patients whose addiction seems to be rooted in their traumas, they refer them to me for individual sessions.  I meet with each patient several times a week to provide support, validation and coping skills, offer opportunities to develop a coherent narrative about the trauma, and increase self-awareness and self-acceptance.

“I also encourage patients to take the issues explored during their sessions with me into the sessions with their individual therapists, to further identify the connection between these issues and their addiction.

“Together as a team, we monitor closely how patients are integrating the coping skills we’re giving them to address their trauma.”


How can people overcome the traumatic experiences that have haunted them for so long?

“I’m not sure it’s possible for people to fully overcome their traumatic experiences, but I do believe people can come to terms with them. They can find a way to be in relationship with the pain that haunts them, to integrate it, and make the meaningful journey from being identified with the victim they once were, to the empowered survivor they know themselves to be.”


How does the process work?

“The process of trauma recovery unfolds in three basic stages: establishing safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection with life. Here at Oxford Treatment Center, because of time limitations, my emphasis is usually on the first and second stages, but patients can and do continually cycle through all three.

“The essential nature of the therapeutic process involves a clinical focus on nurturing a sense of basic safety; teaching techniques in self-soothing, self-care, grounding, and stabilization of emotions; fostering cooperation in our therapeutic relationship; and only after stabilization, promoting recall and emotional comprehension of patient’s traumatic experiences.”


How can patients in the Trauma Track continue the healing process after treatment?

“The time they spend in treatment is a strong beginning. What patients are dealing with is already so raw when they come here, we can often get right into the work. My hope is that the positive experience they have within our work together will motivate them to continue working with a trauma therapist after treatment.

“Prior to discharge, we refer patients to therapists who are knowledgeable and experienced in working with people who have suffered trauma. Just like all our patients, it’s also very important for them to follow the Continuum of Care, through outpatient sessions, sober-living environments, consistently following their after-care program, and attending AA/NA meetings. We strive to equip our patients with the resources they need to continue healing after treatment, and empower them to look forward and fully engage in life without the use of drugs or alcohol.”

References: Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books; Mate, G. (2010). In the realm of hungry ghosts:  Close encounters with addiction. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.


Read more about Addiction & Trauma: A Portrait of Trauma: Ann’s Story | About our Trauma Track


About Dr. Cooper

Michelle Cooper, PhD, serves a dual role at Oxford Treatment Center as music therapist and as clinical therapist for the Trauma Track program.

Even before the latter program was officially formed, staff at Oxford Treatment Center frequently called upon her specific expertise and talents in working with patients whose addiction issues were rooted in past traumatic experiences. When Executive Director Duke Vinson initiated a Trauma Track for patients in residential treatment, he asked Cooper to lead it.

Cooper holds a doctorate in music therapy from Temple University, where she specialized in music psychotherapy. She is currently a candidate in Jungian Analysis through the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts.

For further reading, Dr. Cooper suggests: Addiction Recovery: “Emotional Trauma: An Often Overlooked Root of Addiction,” by David Sack, MD




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