Trauma and Addiction – The Link

Traumatic experiences are ones that deliver overwhelming stress to the nervous system, disrupting its ability to respond healthily and recover equilibrium. In fact, trauma is able to change areas of the brain mediating behaviour and emotion.

We use words such as “shattering” to describe the sometimes extreme degree of psychological disintegration that may be suffered. Rightly we tend to associate trauma with warfare and other types of violence, as well as catastrophic accidents and natural disasters. But trauma in childhood, which is often suffered in less obvious, more insidious ways, can still inflict severe and lasting damage. Natural reserves of resilience may be depleted, establishing an unseen vulnerability to addiction later in life.

An overload of stress with long-lasting effects

In traumatic circumstances, all sense of control is lost in the face of sensory, cognitive and emotional overload. Traumatic experiences may be relatively short in duration or they may be prolonged, which can add to their harmful impact.  While not everyone reacts to similarly traumatic experiences in the same way, the effects of trauma can be profound.  They may be life changing. While trauma suffered in adulthood will initiate a variety of more or less healthy coping strategies,  including misuse of alcohol or drugs that can lead to addiction, it is very often trauma experienced in childhood that underlies the  development of addictive disorders.  However, although the risk is increased by what are termed “adverse childhood experiences”, not everyone who suffered childhood trauma will go on to develop addiction.

Unresolved hurt: a dynamic force

The effects on children of trauma like physical, emotional and sexual abuse and serious neglect don’t evaporate when the traumatising circumstances no longer exist and/or the person becomes an adult; especially if the kind of care and support desperately needed at the time of injury was missing.  Unhealed, the psychic wounds of childhood exert a powerful but unconscious influence on all aspects of an individual’s life.  While, for the sake of survival, a person may shut down or internally disconnect to a degree, the pain, though largely remaining unconscious (i.e. out of mind), is not extinguished. On the contrary, it remains a dynamic force affecting — even determining — mental and physical states, personality, relationships, life choices and behaviour. It is implicated heavily in the onset of conditions such as depression, anxiety and other mental ill health conditions.  The legacy of pain inflicted in childhood parallels the experience of those who endure chronic physical pain.

The conditions for addiction

The struggle to keep the hurt from breaking through into consciousness becomes a systemic preoccupation. This is where coping strategies that can lead to addiction come in.  With neurological and psychological resources overstretched, people are drawn to things which offer some assistance with keeping emotional pain at bay; of regaining control of their inner life.  At its simplest, people look to shut down, escape or achieve relief from the bad feelings and replace them with good ones. They want to be able to do so swiftly and effectively. At the outset they may be quite unaware of the basis of their attraction, for instance, to gambling, compulsive sex or alcohol and other drug misuse.  Being oblivious to a vulnerability to addiction is precisely how it manages to take hold.

Recovery – Underlying hurt will emerge

Addiction treatment providers have to consider that a person’s addictive disorder may have developed as a psycho-social response to unresolved trauma. It is probable that as the addictive behaviours that helped contain developmental pain are curtailed, underlying hurt will emerge.  As this can be quite unsettling, it may be a contributory factor to relapse. It may be wise to spend time in a safe, self-contained environment supported by highly skilled therapists. A judgement has to be made in collaboration with the client. Will confronting underlying trauma in the early stages aid or disrupt recovery?  For some people, securing a functional foundation in recovery from addiction may be necessary before facing, making sense of and integrating painful material from early life.  For others, recovery will not take off until they are able to connect to and resolve the underlying pain of childhood trauma.

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