The Direct Link Between Trauma and Addiction
Not why addiction, but why the pain? – Dr. Gabor Maté
What Dr. Maté—a leader in addiction medicine and world-renowned author and speaker—is saying, is something we’ve long known to be true and yet the field of addiction treatment still lags behind the research: addiction is usually a symptom of underlying trauma, or mental health issues that are the manifestation of trauma. Dr. Maté uses the word ‘pain’ to refer to whatever that underlying issue is, whether it’s past sexual or physical abuse, the pain of not being able to control one’s thoughts and emotions, loss and grief, physical pain or whatever is causing the unpleasant feelings.
- In the United States, 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event.
- Ninety percent of clients in public behavioral health care settings have experienced trauma.
- Over two-thirds of people seeking treatment for some sort of addiction report one or more traumatic life events.
So what is trauma?
Trauma becomes increasingly difficult to define in succinct terms as one further investigates and uncovers the myriad definitions. The reason for this is the subjectivity involved in traumatic experiences, which lends itself to the definition that we think is the clearest, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
“Experienced by an individual…” That is the key. Trauma isn’t an event, but how one experiences or perceives an event. This inherent subjectivity is why people can experience the same seemingly traumatic event, such as being in a car accident or growing up in a war-torn country, and come out of the experience with varying degrees of trauma or distress. Trauma can take all forms, from childhood experiences of divorce, abuse and neglect, bullying, and witnessing domestic violence to loss of a parent, loss of employment, a breakup or being involved in a volatile relationship.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC in the 90s developed a tool for measuring an individual’s exposure to events that could be experienced as traumatic, including abuse or neglect. Some examples of adverse childhood experiences include: physical and emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, witnessing abuse of a parent or another child, substance misuse in the household, divorce of parents and the incarceration of a family member.
How does trauma affect my body?
The human body is highly regulated by the stress response systems that have developed over time as a survival mechanism. In this case, the body instantly responds to the threat by flooding the body with adrenaline, opening up the airways and increasing our heart rate, stifling fear and allowing you to run or fight for survival. This is a great system to have in these situations of life or death. But, what happens when the bear is your dad who comes home drunk at night, or the bully in your school, or an entire block in your neighborhood? Having the body’s fight, flight or freeze response system activated too frequently is damaging to our physiological systems.
Trauma responses act on several systems that affect one’s physiology. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what is currently known is that exposure to trauma leads to a cascade of biological changes and stress responses. These biological alterations are highly associated with PTSD, other mental illnesses, and substance use disorders.
Trauma also affects the brain
A recent study published by Indian scientists reports new findings on how traumatic experiences affect the brain and how these effects later play out in memories. The study showed heightened electrical activity in the amygdala, located deep within the temporal lobe of the brain. This region of the brain is known to play key roles in emotional reactions, memory, and making decisions.
Changes in the amygdala are linked to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD), a mental condition that develops in a delayed fashion after a harrowing experience.
So then how are trauma and substance use connected?
The reasons behind this common co-occurrence of addiction and trauma are complex. For one thing, some people struggling to manage the effects of trauma in their lives may turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. However, addiction soon becomes another problem in the trauma survivor’s life and before long, their coping mechanism no longer works, and causes far more pain to an already struggling person.
Often times, when left undiagnosed and untreated, people will self-medicate with alcohol, illicit drugs or misuse prescription drugs to placate the feelings of depression or anxiety or to numb the pain of the trauma.
So what can I do to reduce trauma and its effect on me?
To prevent further harm and prevent relapse, it is up to treatment professionals to recognize the prevalence of trauma among individuals coping with addiction and routinely screen for trauma symptoms.
Programs that address trauma from a cognitive, emotional and physiological standpoint allow individuals suffering from trauma and addiction to achieve sustainable life change and support the development of coping skills.
If you have a child that is struggling, you may find parenting especially challenging because your son or daughter has put up so many barriers. Seeking professional therapeutic assistance may be the most beneficial course of action.
WinGate offers hope and solutions – even for the most troubled and treatment-resistant individuals. With trusted, reliable, and honest services, teens and parents can build bridges that will last a lifetime. If you are in need of help for your child, we encourage you to reach out to us today at 1-800-560-1599.
Originally written by By Noah Warren, Roots Through Discovery