“Addiction is not a problem in our society, but rather, a person.” – Dr. Hayden
Everyone has a personality, a family history, events in their life, people who have come and gone, societal influences, genetics and biology, and much more. People are complex and multifaceted without addictions, but often in the life of a person with an addiction, the layers of influence are interwoven. One major trend we see in those who struggle with addiction is trauma. Trauma is not always the event itself, but how a person interpreted the event. We may not realize how children are interpreting events until many years later. Trauma has been defined as “an event(s) that overwhelms the person’s perceived ability to cope, debilitates her/him through a central loss of control, and creates the necessity for psychological defenses.” (McCann, I. L., & Pearlman, L.A., 1990)
A famous study through the Kaiser health system, including over 17,000 people, demonstrated that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) increase the risk of addiction and other difficulties in life such as risk of domestic violence, divorce, difficulty finding a job, and more. These Adverse Childhood Experiences include child abuse, parents getting a divorce, a parent being an alcoholic or addict, a person going to jail/prison, or a parent having a mental illness or attempting suicide. The more adverse experiences, the higher the risk for addiction.
Later studies recognized the reason for these risk factors: when a child goes through these negative experiences, their brain development is changed. Their hardwiring looks different from a child that did not go through these traumas. Before you become too discouraged at the realization of how childhood trauma impacts adulthood, there is hope! The brain can rewire and there are now highly effective therapy techniques that heal the damage of trauma.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing)
EMDR is one of the most established and effective protocols for trauma therapy. A clinician must be specially trained to conduct this therapy and will walk a person through reprocessing a trauma in the brain similar to how our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep works. When we experience our day, normal memories are filed away in an organized fashion on the left side of our brain. Our REM sleep at night, with our eyes moving back and forth, is known to play a part in processing our day and choosing what is kept in long-term memory and what is discarded as unimportant.
The left side of the brain does not have any strong emotions (good or bad) so when a memory is stored here, it doesn’t specifically have strong emotions tied to it. When an event happens that our brain is unable to make sense of, it is often stored on the right hemisphere of our brain with all the strong emotions attached. This is when a person has a flashback and feels as if the event is happening in the moment, such as with PTSD.
EMDR activates the right hemisphere and left hemisphere of the brain back and forth, back and forth, while a person discusses a memory in a therapeutic format. The end result is a reprocessed memory. The amazing part about all of this is that our brain has memory networks so that similar memories are stored together. As a person begins reprocessing and healing core, early traumas, they often experience healing as a ripple effect, reprocessing many memories. The brain does this very naturally and the person often feels a sense of peace and new thought processes around the past trauma.
Remember trauma is often a perception more than the actual event. What a person believes about themselves coming away from the trauma will often dictate what they believe about themselves in their future. Unfortunately, sometimes the belief coming away from the event is a lie and a person may base their whole life on that lie. Common lies include “It was my fault,” “I’m cursed,” “I’m broken,” “I’m worthless,” “I’m unlovable,” “I’m inadequate,” and similar destructive thoughts. Cognitive Restructuring helps replace lies with truth and a more accurate view of the trauma and surrounding events. This often gives clients a freedom from the past and a better chance at viewing the world and themselves differently.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
Along with trauma and addictions often comes emotional dysregulation. This is when a person has many strong emotions they cannot regulate well. They may experience both positive and negative emotions at an extreme and their emotions may fluctuate quickly. This can make healthy relationships difficult and may result in reactions that lead to jail, harm, and relapse. The emotions are experienced as truth when, of course, they may not be. For example, if a person feels jealous, he presumes his partner cheated. Too much weight may be placed on emotion. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) gives people tools to regulate emotions, sometimes by decreasing or normalizing emotions and sometimes by increasing the tolerance to particular feelings. People learn mindfulness to be more aware of their physical reactions, thinking, and surroundings, and they learn to improve their interpersonal skills for healthy relationships.