If you struggle with an addiction yourself, or if someone that you love and care for is struggling with one or has struggled with one in the past, then you have probably had to endure some difficult situations.
Some of these situations may have left a serious mark on your psyche in the form of trauma. Addiction can be very traumatic. But did you know that addiction often arises as a result of trauma in the first place?
Trauma leading to addiction
Trauma arises as a result of a very serious or intense situation in which a person is forced to experience something beyond their ability to cope. They go into a state of mental shock and the experience leaves a mental scar in the form of trauma.
Traumatic experiences can cause someone to develop anxieties or depression, or even develop a more serious trauma-related condition like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) These negative mental problems cannot really be properly addressed unless the person identifies the root cause of them, which would be the original traumatic situation.
However, since some people don’t recognize that these behaviors (anxiety, etc.) are caused by a past traumatic experience, they tend to believe that these problems are simply who they are.
Believing that anxiety is just a part of your personality is a very dangerous belief to have, and this can lead to somebody trying to medicate – either self-medicating with illegal drugs, or getting a legitimate prescription from a doctor that could have been avoided with the proper therapy or consulting.
If you have had a traumatic experience in your life, or if you suspect that you might have, you should seek the proper consultant. This will help you to eliminate any underlying problems and help you identify any behaviors that make you unhappy or could put you at risk for doing something dangerous, like using drugs.
Developmental trauma and addiction
Developmental trauma, or trauma that occurs when a person’s brain is still developing, is a very serious form of trauma. Anything traumatic that happens when somebody’s brain is still forming is much more liable to leave some serious, permanent damage.
A person who was developmentally traumatized has a much higher chance of developing an addiction than a person who never experienced trauma, or even than someone who has experienced trauma at other times in their lives. Being traumatized during childhood can have a serious impact on the way the brain forms its understanding of personal relationships, emotions, social norms, and many other things.
Neuroplasticity and trauma
One of the reasons that the young mind is so much more vulnerable to trauma is because of the brain’s plasticity, or its ability to grow, shape, change, and alter connections within itself to adapt to the current situation. This means that environmental and emotional stimuli actually change the way the brain works and it can ‘take shape’ in accordance to the experiences we have — both positive and negative.
One learns to walk and talk by strengthening the connections between neurons, or brain cells. Learning a new word means that a new connection must be established to link the new word to something that we already know. During childhood, our experiences create new pathways, and if we’re repeatedly exposed to the same traumatic, negative experience, we can form deep-seated connections to trauma.
For example, if a young boy is repeatedly traumatized by a violent father screaming at him and telling him that he’s worthless, he is very likely to develop a complex with a seriously distorted self-image. Another example could be a child separated from his mother at birth. He would be very likely to develop a complex in which he craves attention and love from female influences.
A distorted self-image or a need for external validation are some of the leading causes of someone developing an addiction. Drugs become appealing because they allow the person to immediately change their perspective of themselves, but this also makes them highly addicting because they’re self-medicating for a problem that’s based on perception. The more they use drugs, the more difficulty they’ll have appreciating themselves while they’re sober, and thus the cycle of addiction begins.
Drug addictions aren’t the only addictions that can arise because of trauma. Process addictions like gambling or sex addictions are very real problems that can cause just as many difficulties as a drug addiction.
One other serious problem that can occur with developmental trauma is the emergence of PTSD. The previous examples could, in a sense, be considered a mild form of PTSD, but the condition can develop very seriously if it’s left unattended.
PTSD and Addiction
The number of people with PTSD who also struggle with addiction is astonishing, approaching 65%. That means that people with PTSD are more than twice as likely to develop a substance abuse problem if it remains untreated.
PTSD can emerge if someone is repeatedly exposed to traumatic experiences at any time in life. The traumatic experience stimulates the brain’s fight-or-flight response and establishes connections between the situation and the emotional response.
The more this happens, the easier it becomes for similar situations to trigger the same response. For example, someone who was abused physically as a child may have panic attacks triggered when somebody approaches them in person, making it nearly impossible for them to live their daily lives.
People suffering from PTSD are much more likely to develop addictions because they’re constantly facing stress and anxiety from their condition. These people must then seek treatment not only for their addiction, but for the underlying cause of their PTSD, if they hope to ever return to a sober lifestyle.
Any kind of addiction is serious business, and it helps if more people are able to understand the root cause of addiction. The more people who are informed about addiction, the more people will be able to help others when they’re in need.
Younger people are much more susceptible to developing addictions as a result of traumatic experiences. Their brains are not fully formed and are thus much more likely to develop strong connections to irrational behavioral responses, like anxiety and stress, that are indicative of PTSD.
If these people want to recover from their addiction, they must also treat the underlying PTSD to do so.
Call my office at (805) 644-0461 and let’s begin walking the road of recovery and healing together.