THE CONNECTION BETWEEN TRAUMA & ADDICTION
As addicts, we’ve often asked ourselves over and over, “How do we not just quit, but stay quit?” Though the journey is different for each individual, it can often help us to identify and address underlaying issues of trauma. To shed some light on how trauma and addiction are often intricately connected, we invited Canyon Ranch® Tucson & Lenox's Life Management Director, Amy Hawthorne, MS, LMFT, to write an article. In it, Amy Hawthorne explains: “A deep understanding of one’s experiences and the ways in which they are linked to drug and alcohol use can provide one with context, self-compassion and other tools that are necessary for change.” Thus, it is with deeper understanding that we might supplement our 12-step program work with additional support, be it through professional therapy or other wholistic practices. Imagine, for a moment, trying to lift a grand piano up a set of stairs. Were we alone in this attempt, it would be difficult and potentially harmful. If, however, we were able to utilize not only the help of our community but also a professionally rigged set of pulleys, we are setting ourselves up to be more successful in our lifting efforts. So it is similar with our recovery journey. - The 5 PM Meeting Team
While most people might intuitively know that trauma and addiction are positively correlated, that knowing, until recently, has been very much rooted in anecdotes and personal experience. It hasn’t been until more recently, with the advancements in neuroscience and landmark studies such as the ACES Study, do we now have the evidence-based science to back what many of us have always instinctively known to be true. Addiction and trauma are inextricably linked.
The link between early childhood trauma and addiction are not just connected but linked so strongly, that we can now accurately predict later in life struggles, based on early experiences. First, it is important to understand that trauma is now widely understood to be more than just overtly traumatic events such as going to war or being physically abused.
While these remain to be examples of trauma, the reality is that trauma is more times than not, not obvious. Trauma is growing up in a home with a parent who is an addict, having a mentally ill parent, absent parent, emotionally neglectful parent, being bullied, living in a chaotic, cold, unpredictable home, and so much more. Trauma often times is a felt sense of not being safe on some level, be it emotionally, physically spiritually or otherwise, over an extended period of time. In the end, these experiences not only impact the development of one’s central nervous system but fundamentally disrupt the foundation of one’s relationship with self. This is what trauma truly is.
Childhood trauma in these ways, much like going to war and serving our country, impacts one’s central nervous system and the way it is fundamentally wired. It is also important to understand that several other factors impact children differently than adults, leading early childhood experiences to be the hallmark of who and how we are, in adulthood.
First and foremost, these experiences impact us differently in childhood because children are not developed cognitively enough to be able to separate out themselves from the rest of the world meaning that regardless of who you are, you interpret what is happening to you, as a direct reflection of who you are as a human being. As an adult someone can tell us we are worthless, and we can rationalize this as them having a bad day and not that we are truly worthless but as a child, we are not capable of doing that so we internalize it as a truth because our brain has the unique ability to adapt to, and organize itself around, our environment. Thus, our environment is fundamental in how our brains develop. This phenomena is called neuroplasticity.
Due to the nature of how our brain develops, experiences for children are often times much more long lasting and have greater impact on their sense of self and adult self, than experiences one might have in adulthood. Without the framework in place and ability to make contextual references that might allow them to process emotions and experiences effectively, these early childhood experiences tend to take a greater toll on children than adults and have a more profound impact on how their brains are wired.
Furthermore, as children it is more times than not, the people who are meant to care for us, support us and protect us, who are the ones hurting/harming us. Thus, we inherently have nowhere to turn and must therefore find ways to soothe ourselves. When one grows up in an environment where their bodies and brains are flooded with cortisol, adrenaline and feelings of shame are experienced often, it upregulates our central nervous system and effectively flips their stress switches on.
Due to the early wiring of the brain, upregulation of CNS, and shame-based experience of one’s self, drugs, alcohol and other maladaptive coping techniques become highly effective tools for soothing. Thus, when looking at addiction it is impossible to not help people connect their earliest experiences with where they are now, and expect treatment to be effective. A deep understanding of one’s experiences and the ways in which they are linked to drug and alcohol use can provide one with context, self-compassion and other tools that are necessary for change.