The Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction

sad woman sitting in home corner

When we hear the word “trauma” there’s a tendency to think of major events like car crashes, sexual abuse, or the PTSD veterans experience. While these are valid examples, trauma can be much more nuanced. Over 70% of US adults experience at least one kind of traumatic event in their lives. 

What’s more, while the degree to which they are conscious of it varies, many people who suffer from addictions have experienced childhood trauma. As a renowned physician and addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Maté points out: “Rather than choice, chance or genetic predetermination, it is childhood adversity that creates the susceptibility for addiction.” 

Addictions are, more often than not, a means to cope with suffering; to escape from the pain of trauma. Through compassionate inquiry, facilitating the mind-body connection, and fostering nurturing relationships, we can begin healing the roots of addiction.   

What is trauma?

“[Trauma is] a psychic wound that leaves a scar. It leaves an imprint in your nervous system, in your body, in your psyche, and then shows up in multiple ways that are not helpful to you later on.” Dr. Gabor Maté.

The word “trauma” originates from the Greek term “τραῦμα” (traûma), meaning “wound” or “injury”. Today, there are many forms of this response, and each encompasses a complex web of emotional, neurobiological, and psychological effects. 

It’s important to remember that trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you. These experiences can leave lasting wounds on your heart, mind, and body, impacting your life in often debilitating ways. 

In many ways, trauma is both an open wound and a hardened scar. The former means that the slightest trigger can cause immense pain, while the latter refers to the numbness and inflexibility formed out of a need for self-protection. 

Thankfully, due to mounting research and growing awareness around this topic, there have been significant advancements in how we approach and treat trauma.

What is complex trauma?

Complex trauma, also known as developmental trauma or complex PTSD, is a psychological condition that arises when you experience repeated or prolonged instances of abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma, often during childhood or adolescence. Unlike single-incident traumas (isolated events) complex trauma involves a series of traumatic experiences. These are deeply intertwined and can have lasting effects on your emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

When you experience complex trauma, it can disrupt your sense of safety, trust, and self-worth, altering the way you perceive and interact with the world. This can lead to challenges in forming and maintaining healthy relationships. As a result, you may develop various coping mechanisms, some of which may be maladaptive or harmful, such as substance use or self-harm.

The seven impacts of trauma 

Dr. Gabor Maté has spent his life studying the relationship between trauma and addiction. In a recent lecture, he identified seven key ways that trauma can impact us:

1. Causes separation from ourselves

Trauma and Addiction

How long would you survive in nature without listening to your gut feelings? Humans have evolved over millions of years by listening to the body’s messages. Have you ever ignored one of these gut feelings only to regret it later? This is a result of trauma. Ironically, this disconnection from your body is itself a form of self-preservation, protecting you from the overwhelming pain associated with the trauma. Rekindling the primal relationship with the body can help you better understand the trauma and begin healing from it.

2. Creates disconnection from other people

Addiction is often a very lonely experience. Even when you use substances to connect with other people, you’re often doing it as a result of a feeling of isolation. Emotional numbing may lead you to suppress feelings in an attempt to avoid the pain associated with the trauma. This kind of withdrawal can create barriers to intimacy, making it difficult to connect and empathise with others. What’s more, trauma can erode your sense of trust and safety, causing you to become more guarded and cautious in your interactions. This wariness can hinder the formation of new relationships and strain existing ones. 

3. Alters our view of the world

Trauma can significantly alter your view of the world, transforming what may have once seemed like a safe and predictable environment into one that appears hostile, threatening, and uncertain. You may come to perceive the world as a dangerous place, rife with potential hazards and risks. This shift in perspective can lead to a heightened sense of vulnerability and anxiety, making it difficult to trust others or feel secure in daily life. 

4. Causes pain

Perhaps most significantly, trauma causes pain. This pain, whether emotional, physical, or psychological, can be lifelong unless you learn how to deal with it. As they offer temporary relief, addictions often serve as a means to cope with pain, but will end up worsening your symptoms in the long run. This is why seeking treatment and learning healthier coping methods is essential.

5. Affects brain development

Trauma can disrupt the delicate balance within key regions of the brain; primarily those responsible for memory, emotion regulation, and threat response, such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. It can even alter the release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters, contributing to heightened stress responses and mood fluctuations.

If you’re stressed as an adult, and you’re mature enough, you can self-regulate: calm yourself down, breathe slowly, etc. However, children have no way to do this and require adults to help them navigate strong emotions. If you were neglected or abused as a child, and therefore deprived of the proper conditions for self-regulation to develop, your means of coping are likely to be immature and insufficient.

6. Leads to a shame-based view of oneself

concurrent disorder shame of man

Shame is an extremely common feeling among those dealing with trauma and addictions. What you’ve endured can leave you feeling vulnerable, exposed, and overwhelmed by powerful emotions. Trauma can shake the very foundation of your self-esteem and self-worth, leading to the internalisation of negative beliefs about yourself. You may mistakenly blame yourself for what was outside of your control, interpreting your reactions or feelings as evidence of personal inadequacy or failure. This self-blame can foster a persistent sense of shame, causing you to falsely believe yourself to be fundamentally flawed or unworthy.

7. Makes it difficult to be in the present moment 

Considering how it impacts the way you process and respond to experiences, trauma can make it challenging to “be in the now”. Intrusive thoughts or vivid flashbacks can unexpectedly pull you away from the present and transport you back to the distressing experience. 

Additionally, the heightened state of anxiety and hypervigilance that often accompanies trauma can cause you to be constantly on guard, scanning the environment for potential threats. This state of alertness makes it challenging to focus on the here and now, as the mind is preoccupied with detecting danger. 

The body keeps the score

“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”—Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a renowned trauma expert, sheds light on the profound effects of trauma on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. He emphasises that trauma isn’t just an emotional experience, but has a significant impact on our entire being, disrupting the functioning of our brain, nervous system, and various bodily systems. 

One of his key insights is the concept that our bodies remember trauma, even when our conscious minds may have blocked out or forgotten the experiences. This bodily memory can manifest in physical symptoms such as chronic pain or tension, as well as emotional symptoms like anxiety or depression. Moreover, to cope with trauma, your mind may resort to dissociation, disconnecting from thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations. While this can be a helpful protective mechanism during traumatic events, if it persists, it can hinder the healing process and lead to further distress.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk also highlights the importance of incorporating body-based therapies into the healing process. While it certainly can be helpful, traditional talk therapy may not be sufficient for addressing the deeply-rooted physical and emotional effects of trauma. Instead, approaches such as somatic experiencing, EMDR, yoga, and mindfulness can all help individuals to process and release the trauma stored in their bodies.

Another crucial aspect of healing from trauma is the power of relationships. Recovering from trauma often requires the support of a safe, nurturing, and empathetic environment. Building strong, supportive connections with therapists, friends, and family members can play a critical role in the recovery journey.

The book also explores the concept of neuroplasticity, which is your brain’s ability to change and adapt over time. With appropriate interventions and support, those who’ve experienced trauma can develop new neural pathways, fostering resilience and promoting healing. 

Given that trauma is usually the root cause of addictions, Dr. van der Kolk’s insights are invaluable for aiding your recovery journey. 

How trauma can lead to addiction

man looking down at a pill on his hand

Put simply, addictions are a way to cope with pain. Given that most pain is the result of some form of trauma, the connection between the two is incontrovertible. Indeed, innumerable studies highlight this relationship, with early childhood trauma especially being a common cause for substance use disorders in later life.  

Experiencing trauma can leave you feeling overwhelmed with emotional pain and distress. It’s not uncommon for people who suffer from it—those who lack the means to self-regulate or self-soothe—to desperately seek ways to cope. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms can often lead to addiction.

When you’re struggling with the aftermath of trauma, substances like drugs or alcohol become a means of self-medication. They may offer temporary relief from the distressing thoughts, emotions, and memories associated with your trauma, but they can also create a cycle of addiction as you continue to seek comfort in their use.

Because trauma can disrupt the normal functioning of your brain’s stress response system, you can become hypersensitive to stress, anxiety, and emotional upheaval. This heightened vulnerability might push you towards substance use as a way to manage overwhelming emotions.

Moreover, trauma can hinder the development of healthy coping mechanisms, especially if you experienced trauma during childhood. Without effective strategies for managing stress and emotional pain, you may be more likely to rely on addictive substances or behaviours to cope.

As we mentioned earlier, disconnection from others can also contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation, further increasing the risk of addiction. You might find that using substances provides a temporary sense of comfort, connection, or belonging, which reinforces the addictive cycle.

How can Centres for Health & Healing help?

As we’ve shown, the relationship between trauma and addiction is complex and deeply intertwined. Understanding this connection is crucial for addressing the underlying causes of substance use and supporting individuals on their journey toward healing and recovery. 

At Centres for Health & Healing, we recognize the importance of providing comprehensive, compassionate care that addresses both the trauma and addiction components of your recovery journey.

Our team of dedicated professionals is committed to helping you navigate the complexities of trauma and addiction, offering personalised treatment plans that integrate evidence-based therapies, holistic approaches, and a supportive community to help you overcome these challenges. Whether it’s DBT, mindfulness therapy, or our tailored aftercare plans, we provide the safe and nurturing environment you need to begin to heal, rebuild your sense of self, and rediscover the life you deserve.

Don’t hesitate to contact one of our specialists today to learn how we can help you.

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