Trauma and Addiction

At Eden Recovery and Rehabilitation Centre we know addiction is far more complicated than people often believe. Addiction doesn’t occur overnight it is a process that often occurs years before going to rehab. Addiction slowly creeps up on you over weeks, months and even years. It waits for you, for that one weak moment you are not paying attention; it is by all definitions very patient. At Eden we believe that people use substances for many reasons. One of those reasons is to mask the pain that they feel on a daily basis.

It’s often said by addicts that they are not addicted to the substance but rather addicted to the momentarily relief of pain that the substance offers them. I once worked with an addict that explained addiction to me as, “imagine living without air, and now imagine something worse”. As non addicts we often are quick to judge and label their actions, but rarely do we stop and wonder why? We are so conditioned to criticise the addiction without asking why the pain that lead to the addiction. By no means does this justify all their past actions, but understanding needs to be present.

The link between trauma and addiction is strong and rooted in research, particularly childhood trauma. At Eden we firmly believe that pain is often a great determining factor for potential addiction in adulthood. Psychological trauma is defined as a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Psychological trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Physical trauma is defined as a serious injury to the body. Often physical trauma leads to psychological trauma when not properly dealt with at the time, for example Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Each person has their own unique way of dealing or succumbing to trauma.

Therefore trauma whether, physical or psychological, is always defined by the person experiencing the pain. The definition is entirely subjective, if you thought it hurt, then it did. I once asked an addict why you use, knowing how damaging your addiction is. He said that he once read the story of a woman that suffered from Anorexia and why she kept starving her body knowing what it is doing to her health. He said, “I used cocaine not for the high or the thrill, I used it because it provided me with a release from the reality of my emotional pain. The pain this addict was referring to was the loss of his child years ago. He continued saying, “Even knowing that I am damaging my body, my soul with each line that I consume, the compulsion to use more and escape a little further consumed me”. There is often a misconception that psychological trauma must constitute a massive life event, which is not true. As mentioned previously trauma is subjective, and any event that is experienced as shocking or painful can be traumatic for that person. Rape, Divorce, job loss, child abuse, war, emotional abuse, physical abuse or even Bullying can lead to trauma. Events like these, along with a vast variety of others factor may leave individuals with scars that run much deeper than the surface we are exposed to.

With the advances in Neuroscience and more research studies being conducted we now know more about the link between trauma and addiction than ever before. During times of high stress your brain’s executive control center, the cortex becomes interrupted by survival-orientated instincts deep inside your inner brain. These instincts overrule logical thinking, diminished cognitive processing and decrease your ability to inhibit behaviour.
The amygdala, your brain’s threat detection center can become overactive. This over activity can create a state of constantly looking for, seeing and or assessing threats. Logically if you are in constant state of processing events, it can leave you intensely anxious, fearful and vulnerable.

The hippocampus is at the helms of your memory processing center and this then becomes underactive due to the trauma. Instead of placing the memories in the outer-layer of your brain for long term storage, the memories get hung up in a present day loop. This leads the individual to experience and re-experience intrusive, disturbing and uncomfortable recollections. The addiction is then seen to help reduce the sensation that post trauma changes create. The brain is there to ensure the survival of the individual. It puts these traumatic events outside your conscious awareness for a brief period. This is to ensure that one can function and get to a safe place. The problem comes in when we don’t ever then address these problems and at Eden it is our privilege to be able to help you with this healing. The healing process is not easy nor is it fast. . Michele Rosenthal once wrote, “Fear drives all post-trauma related behaviours, healing focuses on resolving the fear”. In other words it’s often the trauma of the past that is driving the addiction of the present.

-Shaun Pyper, Counsellor, Eden Recovery Centre (011) 244 9916