Kathryn Taylor, M.A., LPC/MHSP
There are so many emerging treatments for addiction and related mental health disorders that it can seem overwhelming to choose the best way to feel better. One type of treatment worth considering is trauma-focused addiction treatment. This type of treatment works to help gently uncover the causes behind substance use and treat the emotional disturbances that make sober life seem impossible.
Advances in psychology and neuroscience have done a great deal to help treat substance use disorders (addictions) for countless individuals. We now understand that addiction is not a moral failing– it is a treatable condition that affects the brain in a number of ways. Similarly, we now also have a much greater understanding of the impacts of trauma on the human brain, and this understanding has led to new breakthroughs in helping individuals heal from these traumatic events without re-experiencing the emotions and memories related to the trauma.
How Relation Between Trauma and Addiction
Let’s take a closer look at how trauma and addiction are related. Trauma impacts the brain in a number of key ways. A traumatic situation is a situation that the individual perceived as life-threatening at the time it happened. These events leave the person with a deep sense of loss of control. Often, these situations may lead to unpleasant memories or flashbacks, a great desire to avoid feelings associated with the trauma, and difficulty in relationships. In some cases, trauma may cause traumatized individuals to “shut down” emotionally, or simply subconsciously change the way they see the world.
Link to full infographic via Michael’s House
Consider the following ways that the brain changes to accommodate a traumatic experience:
- After an unexpected or uncontrollable trauma, the amygdala may become very sensitive. It may work to sense and assess new threats before they begin. This may cause the brain to anxiously and fearfully try to spot potential threats before they have a chance to strike. This results in unspoken feelings of anxiety that may seem like they have no cause.
- The hippocampus may then begin to slow down the way it processes memories. It may become difficult to remember events or details, particularly those related to the trauma. However, the brain will eventually still try to process painful memories through dreams (or nightmares), sudden spikes of recollection, or even subconscious changing ideas about the world and other people.
- The brain’s biggest job is to protect the body. Everyday thoughts, logic, and planning that happens in the prefrontal cortex become distracted by these primal brain functions that are related to survival. Organized planning, creative thinking, and logic may take a backseat to more pressing needs related to looking out for more danger– even if, ultimately, those fears for survival are unfounded or illogical. The result may be decreased academic or work functioning, decreases in joyful interactions, or lowered self-esteem.
This all sounds uncomfortable, doesn’t it? The fact is, these brain changes may happen even if the person in question has long forgotten the original trauma. In the end, trauma can make returning to normal life a bit more uncomfortable. Changes in logical thinking can cause setbacks that impact the achievement of goals.
In this light, it seems almost natural to want to escape such an uncomfortable cycle. Unfortunately, many people are surrounded by or offered addictive substances such as alcohol or drugs. Others may find distraction in unhealthy activities, such as gambling, shopping, sexual contact, or even excess food. While these methods may offer a little relief at first, the brain may grasp onto those temporary pleasures and build a dependence on an unhealthy coping strategy.
Trauma and addiction contribute to one another. These two issues often require treatment together in order to prevent additional damage. With effective treatment for both addiction and trauma, it is possible to end the cycle.
Childhood Trauma and Addiction
While human beings are incredibly resilient, exposure to trauma early in life has been shown to increase psychiatric diagnoses in adulthood.1 Childhood trauma has also been shown to contribute to substance use later in life for both men and women.2
Many individuals dismiss childhood trauma as part of growing up. However, the key to understanding childhood trauma is to understand how the experience felt as a child, without dismissing it with rational adult thought processes that may have developed years after the trauma occurred. Some experiences that we understand as safe when we are adults seemed much more dangerous and threatening when we were children.
In other cases, traumas may have occurred before the child could speak or understand emotions or logic clearly. These traumas are often left undiscussed in adult life, and it may take a little investigating to fully understand them. The good news is that remembering any past trauma does not have to be re-traumatizing. It may seem daunting, but it is actually best to seek support regarding traumas that still create unhappiness. Avoiding or numbing out past traumas may result in greater troubles.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study has offered groundbreaking new information about the impact of childhood trauma. This study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), helped uncover the long-term effects of childhood trauma. This study found that, without treatment, adverse experiences in childhood often lead to social or emotional impairment, that often leads to high-risk behaviors (such as substance use), and ultimately, will lead to illness or early death. Treatment to help heal the wounds of these experiences is the very best way to avoid an unfortunate outcome.3
Just a few newer methods that may help address childhood traumas include EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy, DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), somatic experiencing therapy, experiential therapy, and more. All of these treatments involve talk therapy and are completely painless and guided by a trusted mental health counselor. Patients who choose these treatments are always encouraged to share only what feels comfortable, and to work with their counselor to obtain the best possible resolutions and outcomes.
Break the Cycle: Find Treatment Now
Trauma focused addiction treatment has been proven to be effective against the effects of trauma and substance abuse. It is possible to find healthier ways to cope. The importance of treatment may mean the difference between life and death. While the effects of trauma, especially childhood trauma, may seem overpowering, treatment can offer a supportive, comfortable, and healthy way to have a brighter future and a longer, healthier life.
Produced by Foundations Recovery Network
- Khoury, L., Tang, Y. L., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. F., & Ressler, K. J. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population. Depression and Anxiety, 27(12), 1077–1086. http://doi.org/10.1002/da.20751
- Medrano, M.A. ,W.A, , Hatch, J, , Desmond, D.P.. Prevalence of Childhood Trauma in a Community Sample of Substance-Abusing Women. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Vol. 25, Iss. 3, 1999
- R. F. Anda, V. J. Felitti, J. D. Bremner, J. D. Walker, Ch. Whitfield, B. D. Perry, Sh. R. Dube, W. H. Giles. The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood: A convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. Volume 256, Issue 3 , pp 174-186