Written By: Amber Hollingsworth, LPC & Virginia Miller, LPC
I think everyone understands that there is a link between trauma and addiction, but you might not know exactly why that is or how it happens. It’s all very scientific of course, let me try to explain.
There are several ways to think about trauma, I am going to explain it to you the way one of my mentors explained it to me (years ago). There is Big T trauma, which is generally thought of as a single event that was VERY VERY SCARY. During the event, the person feels their life or someone else’s life is in danger. Most often with trauma we think of soldiers and the horrors of war, but trauma can happen in lots of ways.
Some examples would be childhood abuse, rape, armed robbery, seeing a shooting, a fire, a car crash, or a natural disaster such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes. There is no single definite event that could official count as a “traumatic event.” It’s all related to the amount of fear and anxiety that the event triggers in the individual person.
The event could be anything perceived as life threatening. For example, multiple people could experience the same event but each would walk away with a slightly different perception of what happened. These individuals will respond differently during the aftermath of the event. Some will have little to no residual trauma effects, while others may have severe trauma related symptoms.
There is a period of time following the traumatic event (up to about 6 weeks) where the individual may experience a variety of anxiety symptoms. We usually call this Acute Stress Disorder. For most individuals, this will resolve itself during that period of time. For other people, the symptoms may continue, worsen, or even morph into something else. This is when we would be looking at a possible PTSD diagnosis.
Now let’s put all that into the context of how our brain processes events. I’m sure you have all heard of something called the “fight or flight” response. This happens when an event triggers a flood of adrenaline and other chemicals in our brain that are designed to alert us of DANGER. When these chemicals are released, we may behave in ways that are very different than our normal selves. This is our body’s natural EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM! Sometimes mild mannered moms turn into BIG SCARRY MAMMA BEARS. Sometimes big tough guys run away screaming. Sometimes we just freeze and can’t do anything (it should really be called fight, flight, or freeze).
These brain and behavior sequences supersede our thinking process. We are talking primitive brain stuff here! This means that it happens so fast that it overrides our normal decision making process. This is important to remember, because many people really have great difficulty understanding why they behaved the way they did during the traumatic event. Many even experience shame or guilt about the way they responded. This emergency alert system is very powerful and will take control of you in an effort to protect you. I tell people it’s important not to judge their or their loved one’s responses. When we watch crazy things in movies or hear friends telling crazy stories, it’s easy to think (or say) how we would have responded totally differently. But, we really don’t know how we would respond in an event because we might not be in control of our response!
This whole emergency fight, flight, or freeze response is a normal part of the way our brains are wired. For example, this same thing is triggered when you are driving down the road and a deer runs out in front of you. However, some events are so scary that it’s basically like taking a sledge hammer and smashing the alarm button in your brain. This can cause a person’s alarm system to be hyper aware and misread information, which is what can cause trauma symptoms.
These symptoms include (but are not limited to):
–> Intrusive thoughts, memories, flashbacks, or nightmares
–> Avoiding things that trigger the memory of the event
–> Alteration in mood or thinking patterns.
Ultimately the person’s brain changes because of the traumatic event. As you would think, these symptoms are very unpleasant and can last long term. Naturally people seek relief from these symptoms and many begin to abuse drugs and alcohol to get relief. While this may feel temporarily helpful, it’s a sure-fire way to ensure that the symptoms don’t resolve themselves. Basically, it will keep a person stuck in their anxiety cycles, all the while they will be building an increasing dependency on the substances. You end up with an individual who feels very stuck, hopeless, and miserable.
Another kind of trauma is what we call little t trauma. Little t traumas can occur when someone is exposed to a stressful or scary situation over a long period of time. It can also occur from something like feeling shamed and embarrassed by childhood peers at school or feeling helpless after losing a job. It doesn’t reach the level of what we all know as PTSD from assault or war, but the ongoing effects from “little t” traumas can also create painful and unhelpful ways of feeling. Science is showing that it is less about the actual situation and more about how our brains process the events. More to come on that later. A series of “little t” traumas could become what is known as “complex trauma,” which is what we at Hope For Families believe happens to parents who live in fear for their child’s safety due drug/alcohol abuse for long periods of time.
Because this kind of trauma occurs over such a long period of time, it begins to make the person feel unsafe/threatened all the time. It is interesting to note that many people intellectually understand the event is over, but still cannot stop or change how they are feeling. This is where trauma specific therapy comes into play. This can be very difficult to treat, but thanks to research and science, we now have a better understanding of how this all comes together and what to do with it.
When dealing with an individual struggling with a Substance Use Disorder in conjunction with a Trauma related Anxiety Disorder, it is very important to address both things! If you get a person clean and sober, but don’t deal with the trauma, IT’S GONNA BE VERY HARD FOR THEM TO MAINTAIN SOBRIETY! Most go back to using/drinking if the trauma isn’t addressed. So we are left with the question of what to do first.
Basically, you have to get the person sober so that you can address the trauma. You can’t really treat trauma if the person is still actively using. Once you get them sthbilized, it’s important to start addressing the anxiety, stress, and trauma related symptoms. In the past, professionals wanted to wait a long time before addressing these issues. They were afraid that focusing on the patients trauma would destabilize the individual’s recovery. But today, we realize that if we don’t get these symptoms addressed quickly then it’s going to keep triggering relapse. So, it’s a delicate treatment balance.
Unfortunately, there aren’t too many professionals or even agencies that are equipped to deal with both of these issues. Both problems have to be addressed almost simultaneously because the trauma triggers the addiction, and the addiction keeps the trauma stuck!
This is just one of the many reasons we feel so lucky to have a trauma specialist as part of our treatment team at Hope For Families. Virginia Miller is one of our counselors, and she is highly trained and skilled at treating trauma related disorders and symptoms. Virginia has learned a variety of brain-based interventions informed by neuroscience. Through a process known as memory reconsolidation, troubling and unhelpful memories are reprocessed in a way that decreases or eliminates the painful and unhelpful emotions at the root.
One of the non-intrusive approaches she draws from is called Rapid Resolution Therapy or “RRT” for short. If you have been stuck and unable to successfully change your feelings, thoughts or behaviours, it is likely that you are still being impacted on a brain level by experiences from your past. Because of this, emotional problems, troubling thoughts, destructive behaviours and relationship difficulties can seem impossible to overcome, no matter how much you try. A lot of the time, people describe feeling “stuck” or like their efforts to get better are being blocked in some way. This is because attempting to bring about long-term change without eliminating these “ghosts from the past” is like trying to repair the structure of a building by applying a coat of paint.
If you have been stuck and unable to successfully change your feelings, thoughts or behaviors, it is likely that experiences from your past are hampering your efforts. Because of this, emotional problems, troubling thoughts, destructive behaviours, and relationship difficulties can seem impossible to overcome, no matter how much you try. A lot of the time, people describe feeling “stuck” or like their efforts to get better are being blocked in some way. This is because attempting to bring about long-term change without eliminating “ghosts from the past” is like trying to repair the structure of a building by applying a coat of paint.
RRT eliminates the ongoing influence stemming from disturbing or painful experiences. Trauma symptoms are resolved in a way that does not cause more pain or discomfort. Pinpointing and clearing the root causes of these problems opens a pathway that allows for progress to positive and helpful outcomes. You will find that as the mind is able to update and reorganize the way the memory was initially stored and processed, it is possible to realize on every level that the troubling event is without a doubt finished and over, and symptoms can fade.
Obviously, I have just given you a brief overview of a very difficult problem. This article is by no means a comprehensive look at this complex issue. There is much more that goes into treating trauma than I can cover here, but if you are worried that you or a loved one is stuck in this cycle then PLEASE make a free 15 minute phone consult appointment and we can help you figure out what to do next. You can schedule that directly with Virginia by clicking the schedule an appointment button on our website. Virginia helps individuals experiencing anxiety/panic and trauma related disorders even if they don’t have co-occurring substance use disorders.