The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction
A significant symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is to “self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.” Trauma, because it is stored in the body, gives rise to somatic disturbances and upsetting body sensations such as heart-pounding, queasiness, sweating, tightness of muscles and shortness of breath. The rise in disturbing body sensations can trigger the disturbing trauma imagery that is stored in the mind such as nightmares and flashbacks. (Van der Kolk 1994). This can become a vicious circle in which the body and mind play off of each other causing a negative synergy in which the disturbing imagery triggers disturbing body sensations and visa versa, putting trauma survivors into a black hole that they can have trouble finding their way out of.
Drugs and alcohol, for the trauma survivor, can provide a way to quiet the mind and the body that they can have control over; a sort of self-administered trauma treatment or medication. But sooner or later, these “medications” can morph into full blown addictions whether the “medicator” is drugs, alcohol or prescription pills. As the body builds tolerance and both body and mind become addicted, greater amounts of the drug are needed to feel “okay.” Thus the addiction takes hold, the PTSD symptoms become worse not better and lives become unmanageable for all concerned. This is how the wheel of trauma and addiction makes its sinister turn through yet another generation.
When Does Trauma Treatment Become Necessary?
Drugs, alcohol, food or sex, for the person who has experienced trauma, whether that be relationship trauma that is cumulative over time or one time traumatic events, can provide a way to quiet the the disturbing thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that trauma engenders, sort of self-administered trauma treatment medication. Drugs are dose specific, that is an addict can come to know how many drinks or how much and what type of drug they need to numb their emotional pain. In the case of food, sugary and starchy food can be used similarly. These types of foods release dopamine in the brain which has the same numbing type effects as drugs and alcohol. But sooner or later, the medication becomes a primary problem of its own. As the body builds tolerance and both body and mind become addicted, greater amounts of the drug are needed to feel “okay.” Thus the addiction takes hold, the PTSD symptoms become worse not better and lives become unmanageable for all concerned. This is when the wheel of trauma and addiction makes its sinister turn through yet another generation and when trauma treatment becomes crucial.
Trauma Treatment and Process Addictions
We refer to addictions that have to do with manipulating our own body chemistry as “process addictions”. Food (food is harder to categorize as an addiction, there are different views on this), sex, over work, gambling. Essentially with process addictions we’re doing an activity such as sex or eating sugary/starchy foods that releases unusually high amounts of dopamine in the brain, thus producing a sedating effect. In trauma treatment and recovery we learn to replace dysfunctional self soothing activities with functional ones that are based on the same principal, but are healthier, such as walking, journaling, group sharing, guided imagery, “flow” activities. Breathe’s trauma treatment program is based on this transition from dysfunctional medicators to functional forms of self soothing that enhance rather than destroy life. Not only is our trauma treatment program designed to work through the issues related to trauma, but also to build the kinds of life skills that create strength and resilience throughout life, such as:
- Emotional Literacy
- Emotional Intelligence
- Relationship Skills
- Healthy forms of Self Soothing
Post Traumatic Stress Reaction
When we are traumatized, we may have one or more of the following responses: fight, flight or freeze. “In any life-threatening situation a person will first be on high alert as the signs of potential danger are perceived. This is termed the “startle” (Simons, 1996) and is the familiar “deer in the headlights” reaction. Following that is the attempt to fight or flee. If escape is possible, the experience of the near-trauma will be upsetting and temporarily stressful but the person is unlikely to develop PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. If, however, one of these actions is not possible the person experiences a blocking of his or her escape. This results in the “thwarted intention.” This, in turn, gives rise to the “freeze.” (Grant 2003). When we freeze and cannot process what’s happening, we are at higher risk for developing symptoms of PTSD. When we’re triggered by a current life circumstance previous histories of traumatization can make us feel that we’re reliving a painful or frightening situation over and over again. “People with PTSD may organize their lives around dealing with the aftermath of trauma in one or both of two seemingly contradictory ways,” according to Bessel van der Kolk, “[Their lives] are dominated by recurrent intrusive, overwhelming memories related to the trauma in the shape of . . . nightmares, flashbacks or anxiety attacks, and/or they show extreme avoidance of involvement in life, fearing that any intense feelings may trigger a re-experience of trauma.”
How Does Our Mind/Body Process Emotions in Times of High Stress?
Fight/flight was designed to be used in times of danger, not throughout the day. But the body can’t tell the difference between real and fabricated fears, between the stress of a bad phone call, a traffic jam and an elephant charging — it will react to all with the same highly-geared stress response evolved by early man. Our stress response is inextricably tied up with our survival system, which is triggered into action through fear. Fear is what signals the fight/flight/freeze survival defenses to engage. It is one of evolution’s most adaptive emotions. Without it we might head straight into the middle of traffic or pet a mother lioness. We need our fear — it’s nature’s way of shouting at us to keep away from danger. But flipping the stress switch into the “on” position too often can devolve into anxiety, depression, adrenal burnout and compromised immunity. We start to process stress too acutely and have trouble finding balance. This is hard on our body, mind and relationships, to say nothing of our general peace of mind. Our prefrontal cortex — the thinking, planning part — shuts down along with the language part of our brain when we’re in high states of stress whether that stress is coming from being a child in a home that is chaotic or has parents who are acting out their moods at the expense of children’s or neglecting the needs of their children, or by being stuck in terrible traffic. In moments of high stress, our muscles flood with increased blood flow and we spurt adrenaline to prepare us for fight or flight. In the case of childhood trauma, generally speaking, we could do neither. Where would we have gone? Children are dependent upon their parents for home and hearth, but when home itself becomes the saber toothed tiger, and the person the child would normally go to for support and understanding, namely the parent is the one scaring them, the child has a double whammy to deal with. Not only are they feeling terrified but the person who could help them to understand what’s going on is unavailable to them. How does this affect us as adults? Well, all of that feeling of fear, anxiety, and pain went underground and never got “right-sized” or brought back into balance, in other words, we froze. And because the adults we’d normally have gone to in order to express our scared feelings and get reassurance were often the ones causing the chaos to begin with, that pain remained frozen, unconscious and unprocessed. It is that very pain, anger, confusion and anxiety that is triggered when we try to create intimacy as adults. The very feelings of vulnerability, dependence, neediness and closeness that were part of our childhood relationships follow us into our partnering and parenting. And when there is unresolved pain, anger and loneliness attached to these feelings, that follows us, too. This buried pain is what gets triggered when we try to create closeness as adults. Hence, we overreact — we import the old angst into our new relationship. Even a mean look, a loud voice, rejection or anger can make us shiver inside and return to that helpless, frozenness we experienced as a kid. We’re that scared child all over again, locked in the body of an adult. Some of the ways in which children who have experienced family trauma re-create old relationship dynamics in new relationships are through:
- Transference: We transfer or project the relationship dynamic.
- Reenactment dynamics: We recreate the painful unresolved relationship dynamics from childhood that are still frozen and unconscious within us, in our relationships with our partners.
- Projection: We project feelings that we cannot bear to sit with onto our partners and make the feeling about them or about the relationships rather than examine where it might be coming from within ourselves.
- Eliciting responses: We vibrate feelings and unfulfilled expectations or negative expectations into the atmosphere of our relationship, which elicit corresponding responses from our partners — then we get what we expect.
During trauma treatment, processing old pain can help us to make sense of it, as frozen feelings emerge in a safe, therapeutic environment along with our feelings of fear, vulnerability and hurt that we have defended against feeling through numbing them with drugs, alcohol, food, sex and so forth, we feel in service if healing. Though this process can feel, at times, dis-equalibrating, our adult minds can actually function as it’s meant to and make sense of our own pain once it can be seen and felt for what it is. Rather than project our pain and make it about someone or something else, we can own it, feel it, translate it into words, share it and understand it. Through trauma treatment, we can develop tools and skills that we previously did not possess for processing emotions. We can use our thinking mind to make sense of our feelings. Sources: Dayton, Tian (2007) Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance, Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, Fla. Dayton, Tian (2005) The Living Stage: A Step by Step Guide to Psychodrama, Sociometry and Experiential Group Therapy, Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, Fla. Van der Kolk,, (Editor), Lars Weisaeth (Editor), Professor Alexander C McFarlane (Editor) Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society Guilford Press, NY, New York. Van der Kplk, 1987 Psychological Trauma , American Psychiatric Press, Arlington, Va