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“If you knew how excruciatingly uncomfortable it is to live in my own skin, you would understand why I do not want to be present in my body and in this world.” Anonymous
Some version of this statement is, unfortunately, a heartbreakingly common thought often expressed by someone coping with addiction. It is also heartbreakingly common among those with unresolved trauma. Research continues to show that both trauma and addiction create an internal war fueling physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual chaos. When trauma and addiction intersect, a person becomes tangled in a self-perpetuating cycle that must be fully and holistically addressed in order to allow healing from such pain and discord.
While addiction, and the impulsivity characteristic of an active addiction lifestyle, can certainly increase vulnerability for trauma experiences, this article focuses on the ways in which unresolved trauma could open the door for addiction.
To more fully explore this link between trauma and addiction, it can be helpful to first develop a working definition of what constitutes addiction and trauma.
In addiction, moderation is lost, and what initially starts as something more pleasurable, with few, if any, consequences (like substance use, sex, pornography, impulsive eating…) eventually shifts into the primary source of conflict infiltrating numerous aspects of one’s life. What distinguishes addiction from a ‘problem behavior,’ is the brain becomes rewired to view the addiction (i.e. alcohol/drug(s)/behavior(s) as an essential survival mechanism rather than the ‘thing’ that has spiraled out of control. This rewiring causes the person struggling with addiction, whether chemical or behavioral, to become unable to abstain from the alcohol/drug(s)/behavior despite negative consequences.
Trauma is the natural effect that happens when our body is in such a heightened state of stress that we are unable to process an experience in a typical manner. Trauma then, is less about the event and more about how the memory is processed within the brain, due to the stress level of the body at the time of the experience. When people think of trauma, they often think of an experience you may see in a news story, like assault or crime. And, while this may result in trauma, trauma can also occur from experiences that seem a more common part of life, like the death of a pet or the separation from a parent. Trauma can occur at any age, even prenatally, because it is linked to the arousal state of the body at the time of the experience. Physical development, life experiences, genetics, and environments all play into a person’s stress threshold; so, what may result in trauma for one person may or may not result in trauma for another.
The Survival Link
While these definitions of addiction and trauma could certainly be expanded upon, the common connection of a survival instinct begins to emerge. Ongoing research and studies in neuroscience continue to show that both trauma and addiction reduce the higher level functioning in our brain. Higher level functioning in our brain are typical brain activities, allowing us to make healthy, informed, and well thought out decisions throughout the day. Without these higher-level functions, brain activity reduces to more of a survival mode. The primary objective of this survival mode is to keep the body alive, regardless of the cost to one’s overall wellness.
Experiencing and dealing with a trauma that goes unhealed, the brain functions rewire to this hyper-state of arousal intended to keep the body safe, which becomes the status quo of daily functioning, creating the perfect breeding ground to foster addiction. For example, if you were chased by a mountain lion, your primary concern will not be about healthy nutrition, how you feel about being chased, or your upcoming mortgage payment; instead, your energy is on getting away from the mountain lion and getting to safety. Trauma makes the brain hyper focused on safety as a means of survival, while addiction makes the brain hyper focused on the drug as a means of survival.
Impacts of Trauma on Brain Functioning and Brain Development
Trauma experienced at any age impacts brain functioning by increasing our stress response in attempts to keep the body physically safe. During a trauma experience, our brain’s amygdala, the part of our brain operating more from emotions and survival instinct, takes control and triggers the flight/fight/freeze response. And while this is an incredibly useful response during the traumatic experience, trauma memories become trapped in this cycle and continue to illicit fear responses long after the experience. The impact of this keeps the brain locked in survival mode. The brain essentially rewires to limit the higher-level functioning skills like problem solving and healthy decision-making. Thus, trauma like addiction rewires the brain by reducing the brains functions for anything but survival. Safety and survival thus can become inextricably intertwined in the rewired brain of a person suffering trauma and addiction.
Experienced trauma has an added impact on the brain for those who experience trauma while their brain is still developing, because they have not yet developed some of the additional resources that can assist in coping with trauma. Neuroscience has found that brain development typically lasts well into one’s 20s. Childhood and adolescence are an extremely important and critical time for development of the higher-level brain functioning impacted by both trauma and addiction. This is like showing up to a battle without armor. For those with still growing minds, the brain is still learning how to process even the most neutral of events, much less highly painful and confusing traumatic experiences.
Understanding when the trauma occurred in the lifeline does not necessarily change the impact of the trauma, but it does provide important information in recognizing what was happening at a cellular, chemical, and biological level before the pain and disruption of the trauma occurred. After a trauma experience, the amygdala takes the driver seat and can lead to behaviors that are more spontaneous and impulsive. The higher level functioning that typically drives the hypothetical car is now being driven by the amygdala, using spontaneity and impulsivity, instead of the higher level functions of the brain devoted to problem solving and decision making. So after trauma occurs, decisions can become more about avoiding discomfort and trying to find a sense, even a false sense, of safety. This can build a stage for addiction, which again, starts as a pleasure seeking behavior before becoming a false sense of survival.
Trauma Creates a State of Discomfort that Fosters an Urge to Escape
Our emotions and our body sensations give us tremendous information and cues about our presence in our environment. After trauma, the body enters a more constant state of hyper arousal and it alters the stress, threat response. This can lead to hyper vigilance and even feelings of being ‘crazy.’ An event that you cognitively may recognize to be a low threat situation can spark a loud threat response in the body (rapid heart rate, feelings of panic…). The body is not intended live in this constant state of arousal and will learn how to disconnect from its physical, emotional and even cognitive experiences. The exhaustion of living in such a state of stress, can lead to the desperation to numb out, check out, or change the way you are feeling… all of which are desires fueling addiction. Addiction becomes all about seeking the drug or behavior that fosters the addiction – this tunnel vision creates the ultimate way to numb out, checkout, and change the way you are feeling.
Trauma could be Generational Leading to Behavioral Modeling
When one person has experienced trauma, it is fairly common to find themes of such trauma wounds within the family system, referred to as intergenerational trauma. How we develop attachments and connections with others begins at an early age. We develop responses to relationships based on our attachments with the people surrounding us throughout our lives. Some of these patterns can be very healthy and some can be very hurtful. Even though they may not promote health and wellness, these hurtful patterns are familiar and can be repeated into adulthood unless there is some intervention or break in the pattern.
Trauma wounds transcending generational gaps, also foster the perpetuation of developed coping skills, often ones developed out of necessity rather than to empower one’s overall wellness. One such coping skill to emerge may be substance use and impulsive behaviors, which have the potential to jump from that initial pleasurable sense of relief into addiction.
How to Heal from it All
Anyone operating in survival mode, be it from trauma or addiction (or both), has an incredible and resilient spirit. It takes tremendous effort to walk through life with simply the bare bones of those internal resources (our survival instincts) intended to keep us alive. These are the resources that fuel trauma and addiction because the brain becomes rewired to see safety/alcohol/drug(s)/certain behavior(s) as the ultimate means of survival. The goal is to challenge such tunnel vision, and channel those survival instincts into developing the healing skills that are sustainable and can help in changing these patterns. There is hope and healing to be found, and it doesn’t have to happen alone.
Written by Laura Galinis
American Society of Addiction. (2011). Definition of Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/quality-practice/definition-of-addiction
Armstrong, C. (2016). Creative Strategies for Healing Trauma: Experiential Strategies to Rewire the Brain. Presentation, Atlanta, Georgia.
Marich, J. (2014). Trauma Made Simple. Eau Claire, Wisconsin: PESI Publishing & Media, PESI, Inc.
Poole-Heller, D. (2009). Creating Healthy Adult Relationships. Louisville, CO: The Dynamic Attachment Re-Patterning Experience.