Trauma and Addiction

 It’s likely not a surprise that very often, people struggling with addiction have dealt with extreme trauma in their lives. Often, this is where drugs and alcohol come into play. We have experienced these horrible life experiences without the skills needed to process them in a healthy way. As a result, drugs and alcohol offer a convenient way to numb the pain we are experiencing and “not feel”. This may not even be a conscious thought process, and for most people, it works for a while. Then slowly but surely, it stops working so well. We start to find that using is impacting other areas of our life. We are struggling with work, in our friendships, our romantic relationships etc. Also, now instead of the drugs and alcohol offering us this relief from our pain, it is slowly but surely becoming more and more about using just to try and continue to feel ok enough to function in our daily lives.

So why does this happen? For one thing, as previously stated, drugs and alcohol offer this option of not sitting with and experiencing our pain fully. It gives a way out in a sense. This is incredibly powerful and seductive in times of extreme distress. Additionally, trauma, especially in childhood, wires our brains in a way that essentially primes us for addiction. It impacts our ability to regulate our emotions, putting us in this state of constant heightened anxiety and stress. This again, makes the idea of being able to “tune out” this anxiety especially appealing.  Additionally, trauma can also impact how the portion of our brain involved in executive functioning (logic and reasoning) develops, in a way that can make impulse control more difficult. In a lot of ways, having this constantly stressed out, on high alert brain that struggles to control impulses really does set the stage for possible addiction.

That said, it’s important to make the distinction that a history of trauma does not guarantee struggles with substance abuse. It is one of many factors that can predispose someone to struggles with substance abuse but it’s an important part of the conversation when we are talk about helping people who are currently struggling with substances. For those who have endured trauma, it’s important to  work with someone who can help with navigating processing and moving through these experiences. The temptation for many is to ignore their trauma and have the mentality of “I’m not drinking/using right now so I’m fine”, but unfortunately, this can be detrimental for long term recovery as we are not dealing with the core issues behind those behaviors.

Questions about substance use, trauma, or anything else addiction related? Feel free to get in touch!