As our understanding of trauma and addiction improves, so do we understand more thoroughly why people are drawn towards drugs. No one chooses to be shackled under a case of severe addiction – but sometimes, life has us act against our better judgment, making mistakes we regret, and fueling a cycle of guilt and shame perpetuated both internally and by society around us.
At the heart of addiction for many lies pain – and there is no greater pain than trauma. Trauma is a reverberation of past pain, a mental and emotional scar created by a form of pain so severe that it couldn’t be digested all at once. When our mind is confronted with a pain like that, regardless of whether its physical or emotional or both, the structure and growth of the brain is affected. Our memories, thoughts, feelings are shaped around this scar, like scar tissue deforms around a terrible wound.
Resolving trauma takes time, and often, the help of a professional. Traumas are delicate and approaching one means delving into highly sensitive areas, areas most people spend their lives protecting through habits and personality quirks designed to keep them safe from that experience. Overcoming trauma and addiction are often two sides of the same coin – but both need to be understood separately, first.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is caused by an especially painful experience. It’s an individual matter –experiences may be traumatic to some people, and not traumatic to others. Childhood trauma is common, but trauma can also be experienced in adulthood. Common causes of trauma are sexual violence, war, and death. Trauma doesn’t have to constitute of a personal violation: witnessing the graphic death of a loved one can lead to trauma, as can seeing people die in battlefield.
Trauma can be recognized through the amygdala, which is the part of your brain dedicated to threat analysis, fight and flight. When traumatized, a person’s amygdala may be overactive, constantly seeing threats and making you feel excessively anxious and paranoid. This is because traumatic experiences have real physical effects on the brain, and how it works.
In addition to being more anxious and prone to feeling threatened, your hippocampus – dedicated to memories – may show symptoms of being stuck. It’s healthy to move on – but after a traumatic experience, your brain will be hung up in the trauma. This can manifest in flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and repressed memories.
Finally, the emotional pain of trauma will affect the way you make decisions – instead of long-term, rational thinking, someone who suffered a trauma is more prone to making short-term decisions, meaning you’re more prone to addictive and compulsive behavior.
In a way, all this is because your brain is trying to protect you from another similar experience to what you had. It becomes hyperaware of threats, acts in an instinctive manner and keeps you focused on the painful memory rather than letting you move on. While this is a self-preservation mechanism, it’s self-destructive more than anything else. Overcoming this instinct isn’t done overnight – especially when coupled with addiction. However, it’s highly treatable with the right help.
Why Trauma And Addiction Are Linked
As mentioned earlier, no one consciously chooses a life of addiction, knowing the long-term consequences. Addiction is the result of making a short-term decision, one with good intentions. Pain can make it harder for us to make well-informed decisions – and when you’re dealing with a particularly bad symptom, such as a panic attack or a moment of deep depression, the pleasure and temporary comfort of a common drug might be the “best option”, especially when other options are a lot more final.
Addiction develops as part of a cycle, where you take a drug to escape harmful emotions and thoughts, only to crash back down after your brief respite, looking for the next opportunity to get away. When you’re not emotionally drawn to drugs, long-term use can create a relationship between drugs and the body, where abstinence results in painful withdrawal. The reason drugs do this is because the body seeks out anything that gives us pleasure as a good thing – instinctually, pleasure is good. Especially when the alternative isn’t.
There are better options of dealing with trauma, of course. However, they require the guided help of a professional, and there are circumstances that prevent that help from being administered. Some people prefer not acknowledging their trauma, due to the deep stigma around mental health issues. Some fear that it’ll affect their careers and aspirations. Others have trouble seeking out help due to severe self-esteem issues, and feelings of depression. Trauma creates an environment where your own mind doesn’t feel safe anymore, and trusting others to help you and have your best interest in mind can be extremely difficult.
At the end of the day, self-medicating through an eating disorder, alcohol, painkillers or half a dozen other options seems easier, and can be kept a secret – at first. But with time, that secret will always fall apart, and picking up the pieces requires help and support.
Getting Help With Trauma And Addiction
If you’re in a situation where you’re struggling with trauma and addiction on top of a buildup of fears and anxieties, then seek help immediately. Go to close friends and trusted family members, speak to professionals, and see what options you have for recovery. Many paths to treatment for both addiction and mental health are covered by insurance nowadays, so explore your options.
Support can be found anywhere. Even the Internet is a major source of support, and you’ll find many small communities online where like-minded people come together to seek a healthy and private environment to share thoughts and make friends. Local group therapy and sober housing programs are wonderful places to go to after rehab, or after a detox, to learn how to live in sobriety and stay happy while being away from drugs.
Addiction is a coping mechanism, and we all need coping mechanisms. However, we can cope in much healthier ways. It all starts with acknowledging your trauma and addiction, and then taking the steps to explore it. From there, it’s a question of individual circumstances.