One of the requests we have had from the iCAAD community through our interactive-i campaign, was that we publish a blog about trauma and how much it is a trigger for chemical abuse addictions. Judy Crane from The Guest House Ocala and iCAAD London 2019 speaker, is one of the leading experts on trauma, so naturally we reached out to them to supply us with the desired article. Here is what they wrote:
How Much Does Trauma Trigger Chemical Abuse Addictions?
Could we say in totality how trauma will affect an individual across all individuals? What researchers, therapists, and counselors have found is that we truly cannot. Trauma is an incredibly unique experience, even though the experience of trauma is universal. Two people can survive the same exact traumatic situation or event and experience their personal response to trauma in two entirely separate ways. One person may develop a chemical abuse addiction and one person may not. One person may develop a mood disorder and one person may not. Though one person may not develop a diagnosable response, like a substance use disorder or a personality or mood disorder, that doesn’t mean they won’t be unaffected. Trauma can manifest in any number of ways, including self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, ability to perform in a job, how one nurtures their children, and much more. The nuances of trauma’s far-reaching scope and the innumerable probabilities of how, where, and when trauma will affect someone are difficult to effectively or concretely calculate.
Does Everyone Who Experiences Trauma Develop An Addiction?
Trauma is often a core contributing factor to the development of an addiction of any kind, be it a chemical, behavioral, or process addiction. Everyone who experiences trauma in their life, be it seemingly significant or insignificant, will be at risk for developing an addiction of some kind, or another maladaptive, problematic coping behavior. The word addiction can be seen as relatively ambiguous in this regard. We can become addicted to chemical substances, other substances, behaviors, and processes without question. However, we can also become addicted to our emotions, certain emotional states, and certain kinds of dysfunction in our lives. Though these addictions don’t necessarily threaten our lives in the direct way an addiction to a dangerous chemical substance like heroin can, they do threaten our quality of life and can affect is in severe ways.
How Does Trauma Lead To Addiction?
Trauma impairs the body, mind, and spirit’s ability to function properly- put most simply. Like a lightning bolt hitting the sand, the way the brain is formed synaptically and the way the nervous system communicates with the brain, as well as the body, is drastically altered in its form and its function. How the brain operates changes. How the brain communicates with the rest of the body changes. How the body senses, reacts to sensation, and maintains itself also changes. Every fundamental part of how we exist in our daily lives, from the way we regulate stress to the way we handle our emotions, from the way we react to our environment to the way we process the hormones being produced in our body- changes. Trauma creates a profound impact of stress in our body because many systems cease to operate at their optimum functionality.
The Role Of Stress In Trauma And Addiction
Stress is more than something we feel in our mentality. When we tune into our bodies and become mindful of stress, we can feel where it is and how it affects us. We might get muscle tension, backaches, stomach cramps, or a tightening in our chest. Beyond the muscular sensations, stress is happening at a cellular, visceral, and molecular level. All of these deep layers of stress cause deterioration of our health overall, lowering the strength of our immune system, weakening our body, and eating away at the sustainability of our mental health. In this deficient state, we are more vulnerable to the excitement of the external world. From a ground zero of security, our bodies are better prepared to handle all the other stressors in life, whether they created big stress or little stress. If our foundation of security and the systems we have in place of body and mind to deal with stress are not able to function properly, we will not properly handle stress. Our body and brain will not regulate even the slightest bit of real or perceived stress in a normal, healthy way. However our traumatic stress manifests, that is the specific ways we become used to reacting to stress, rather than responding.
Our inability to effectively cope with stress on our own puts us at a higher risk of turning to chemical substances to try and manage our feelings both emotional and physical. Chemical substances cause changes in the way our brain produces neurotransmitters, chemicals which helps us feel pleasure, happiness, and other emotions. Trauma also changes the way our neurotransmitters are produced, as well as other hormones in our body which can dictate our emotional experiences. If we are used to having challenging emotional experiences, our propensity toward liking the effects caused by chemical substances will be heightened. For example, if we are prone to depression, a chemical substance which causes a great sense of elation or euphoria will be attractive to us.
Most chemical substances produce a high quantity of the neurotransmitter dopamine once they hit the bloodstream and cross the brain/blood barrier. Dopamine specifically transmits chemical messages of pleasure throughout the brain, which contributes to the sensations of euphoria we experience when we are intoxicated on any number of chemical substances like drugs and alcohol. Stress is quickly forgotten, numbed out, and replaced by rushes of dopamine. For an individual who is used to feeling high stress, physical pain, and emotional distress, the flood of pleasurable sensations and feelings created by drugs and alcohol is a welcome relief. Most people find themselves turning to chemical substances, even in a normal way, for precisely that purpose: drugs and alcohol provide, for a time, an intense, multifaceted relief from the many pains of living with untreated and unresolved trauma.
To forget about trauma and the many feelings associated with trauma for even a minute moment is a miracle to trauma survivors. To live for a time without pain, without anxiety, without physical reminders, without emotional reminders, and without the overall constant chronic stress is a gift that one will earnestly, if not desperately and compulsively, continue seeking. Chemical addictions become a new form of survival for people who have felt like they have been surviving their whole lives since the moment they first survived an original trauma. Problematically, like all survival behaviors, what starts as a relief or a reprieve quickly becomes a destructive, unmanageable way of living, often leading to new trauma.
How Much Does Trauma Trigger Chemical Addictions?
Trauma does not necessarily trigger chemical addictions, but as we have learned thus far, trauma does lay the groundwork for chemical addiction to develop. Like rich soil and perfect conditions support produce, trauma creates the bed necessary for addictions to root, grow, and thrive.
The idea and the meaning of the word “trigger” varies in the trauma landscape. Most often, we talk about circumstances which trigger the effects of trauma, like loud noises triggering war flashbacks for a combat veteran. When it comes to addiction, we also hear the word trigger, like what might trigger someone to have a sudden and inconsolable craving for using drugs or alcohol.
Vulnerability toward chemical addiction varies depending on a number of conditions including genetics, social environment, home environment, upbringing, schooling, and gender, among many others. The number of traumatic events one encounters in their life, as well as the severity of those traumatic events and how early in childhood those traumatic events take place also contribute to how much trauma will trigger chemical addiction.
What is most important to note is that the experience of trauma in any capacity does not mean someone will develop an addiction to anything, at any point in their life. Experiencing trauma doesn’t mean that there will be any kind of negative effect at all once so ever at any point in life. The effects of trauma can be deferred and can also be so subtle that they are hardly noticeable under the threshold of being a “high functioning” individual. It is not to say that some people are unaffected by trauma- everyone will be affected by trauma in some way. It is also not to say that some people are just more resilient than others. The many responses to trauma and survival behaviors that we create for ourselves to cope with trauma are a demonstration of sheer resiliency. We have to remember, these are survival behaviors, meaning, though they may be destructive, we have done the very best we have to make sense of a world which no longer makes sense to us and find a way to continue living in it to some kind of degree. Addiction is, in many ways, a brilliant approach to survival. Resiliency is not any more or less evident in someone who develops an addiction as a result of trauma or who does not.
Confronting Co-Occurring Trauma and Chemical Addictions
People will spend years of their lives chasing the revolving door of addiction treatment, wondering why one program after the next “doesn’t work”. They’ll try every therapeutic modality in the book, every twelve-step program which calls to them, and every religion or spiritual self-help movement which promises to relieve them of the compulsion to self-destruct through drugs and alcohol. Relapse does not have to be part of the recovery story, but for many people who have never touched on or treated their trauma therapeutically, relapse can be chronic. The reasons are not without obviousness to anyone who is trauma-informed and trauma-trained.
When trauma lays beneath the surface of addiction and only addiction is treated, the wound is not healed. Most often a metaphor of attempting to heal a bullet wound with a band aid is used. Though the treatment may be somewhat efficient in treating one small part of the issue, the core issue itself is not properly treated or healed. Of course, an open wound with a foreign particle in it has grave repercussion- like infection which can fester, find its way to the bloodstream, and cause death. Addiction is like the infection which festers from the open wound of trauma. The more that the symptoms of an infection are treated without closing the wound of trauma, the more problems which will arise.
Trauma treatment is necessary for identifying, healing, and resolving as much as possible, trauma wounds from the past. As trauma heals, stress is lifted- the very same stress which causes illness and consequently lays the groundwork for addiction by creating a need to find relief from stress. Trauma recovery has produced absolute miracles as people relieve the cellular, emotional, visceral, spiritual, physical, molecular, and mental stress they have carried around for countless years of their lives. Not only is their addiction healed, but the entirety of their lives finds a healing they never before knew was possible- because they never before knew that trauma was the problem, or that trauma treatment was the solution.
Everyone on earth has a story and there is a high likelihood that at some point in time, at least once, that story is going to involve trauma. Trauma and its many manifestations can be healed and life after trauma is possible to live in a state of happiness, peace, and serenity. The Guest House Ocala is a world renowned trauma treatment program providing the utmost quality of concierge level care, creating entirely unique customized treatment plans to meet the specific experiences and needs of every client. For information on our residential treatment programs for traumas, addictions, mental illnesses, and other manifestations of trauma responses, call us today: 855-483-7800