What is trauma?
Trauma occurs when we experience specific, threatening events that trigger fight or flight behaviors. Trauma can result from:
- an accident
- an attack
- caregiver abuse
- caregiver neglect
- natural disasters
- systemic prejudice based on things like gender, race, or religion
Early childhood trauma and addiction
The effects of childhood trauma – especially when it occurs during pre-verbal stages of development – can become hard-wired and particularly pernicious, with the normal stresses of life triggering disproportionate reactions of panic and feelings of being overwhelmed that become completely unmanageable. The individual moves into a state of disassociation where she is no longer “in her body” and becomes disconnected from what is happening around her. This leads to a shutdown of all conscious and purposeful functioning, with drug use becoming a habitual tool used to regulate emotions.
How trauma lives in the body
In his book, The Trauma Spectrum, Dr. Robert Scaer describes how unresolved trauma resides in the body, rearing up to disable survivors many years after the actual event (or events). He explains that trauma itself is an unavoidable fact of nature that does not automatically lead to chronic problems. We instinctively react to perceived threats with fight or flight behaviors, experiencing heightened states of physical and mental awareness that allow us to survive whatever is threatening us. If we do survive, then we slowly go back to our normal state (homeostasis), with the body releasing the adrenaline and other substances that had been dumped into our systems during the traumatic event.
However, achieving homeostasis after trauma is not guaranteed. For example, one can develop what is called learned helplessness if we re-experience the trauma over and over again. We learn that neither “fight” or “flight” is effective and we settle into a “freeze” state where purposeful action is impossible and we experience a flooding sensation of numbness. A prey animal caught by a predator experiences this as it is held down, waiting to be eaten. Future events that remind us of the trauma may trigger this freeze state even when there is no real threat, disabling us through numbing disassociation.
Another barrier to achieving homeostasis is a cultural inhibition to fully completing the trauma cycle. Releasing trauma from the body is accomplished through violent shaking, crying, and intense emotions that often make well-intentioned comforters want to calm the person down rather than letting him release the pent up toxins from his body, thereby interrupting completion of the cycle.
Traditional counseling for addicts with trauma has limitations
As the body is the focal point of the trauma cycle, its needs must be included in any treatment that hopes to truly help individuals suffering from unresolved trauma. I have encountered many situations in therapy where recovering addicts just can’t find the words to describe their feelings about traumatic experiences and they just shut down. They have reached a place where words just don’t make any sense and in fact can be counter-productive to the complete resolution of their problems. It then becomes necessary to introduce a more body-centered approach to complement the talk therapy.
How to resolve trauma and abuse for addicts
Body-centered treatments like therapeutic massage, EMDR, art therapy, somatic experiencing, dance therapy, walking the labyrinth – among many others – offer access into the body’s stored trauma. They give the opportunity to slowly release the body’s toxic memories in a safe and controlled environment, allowing the survivor to complete the trauma cycle and break free of the tendency to disassociate. Drug use then becomes more manageable because the compelling need for self-medicating has been resolved.
We must treat the whole person if we hope to address such a deep and pervasive affliction as addiction. Body-centered therapies add an essential dimension to traditional substance abuse treatment because they approach a common underlying cause of addiction where it lives. I encourage all addicts, especially those who have experienced trauma in their past, to explore this option and add it to your recovery program.