“This is a wonderful article that focus’ on P.T.S.D that can develop from childhood trauma and how it is linked to Addiction. I may not have experienced much trauma due to my up-bringing but I can fully understand the diagnosis of P.T.S.D after I was faced with the traumatic experience of an extreme manic outbreak while I was living abroad in India. Its hard not to think of something so dramatic everyday and live in extreme regret and torture from the memories. I hope your able to find as much appreciation for this problem and its connections to addiction recovery as much as I have.” -Love, Robyn
by Kevin VaLeu
We live in an addictive age. In the last five years of my life I have come across and counseled more people struggling with cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, anorexia, sex, and a whole host of other addictions then I did in the previous five years.
Are people becoming more immoral? Or is there something else causing people to turn to substances and sex. Perhaps these next statistics will shed light into what I believe is the underlying causation of our culture’s craziness.
1) The turn of our century (2000) marked the first time in American history that the majority of our children (over 50%) were raised without both biological mother and father in the same home.
2) Even if both mother and father are in the home it doesn’t mean they are in any better shape if they are being abused or neglected. 61% of all children experience some form of neglect.
3) Greater than 1 out of 3 girls will be sexually molested during their childhood or teenage years.
What does this mean? We live in a day and age where children are experiencing trauma at unprecedented levels from molestations, abuse, abandonment, neglect, and dysfunctional or fragmented homes. When traumatized children slip under the radar of effective treatment they will find illegitimate, illicit and unhealthy coping mechanisms to medicate the long unforgotten pain.
Link Between Trauma and Addictions
Research shows that 50-60% of women and 20% of men in chemical dependency programs report a history of childhood sexual abuse. When you include people that have experienced P.T.S.D. (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or childhood trauma the number can climb as high as 99% of them having substance abuse problems.
How Trauma Affects the Brain
In order to understand how trauma makes one more susceptible to addictions, we need to understand two types of memories at work in the brain: 1) Explicit Memory–this is a memory that we can deliberately call up or put away at any time. We have a sense of control over it and we know it is just a memory; 2) Implicit Memory–these memories have coded in them not only a picture of a past event but the resulting feelings, sensations, and emotional response that went with it. These memories happen outside our control.
These memories are adaptive or automatic, which means they can “pop up” or shoot into our minds involuntarily upon some stimuli or current event that reminds us of a past trauma (called association). This is why a current event can trigger a flood of negative emotions that are identical to the emotions we felt at the time of the trauma. In fact, this is why people with PTSD are continually being tortured from their memories because when something “triggers” their past they are actually reliving the painful past trauma over again. Its no longer just a memory they recall, its all the emotions, feelings, and sensations engraved upon that memory card they recall and relive in the present.
This is why many Vietnam veterans with PTSD experience such painful flashbacks. They aren’t just remembering the past, they are actually reliving it. The bomb they see coming at them in their memory is a real bomb coming at them right now.
In addition, as we grew up, all of our basic assumptions about people (e.g. can they be trusted), ways of relating, and behaving towards people are formed on these implicit memory cards. This explains why you get tense or tighten up at the bank whenever you run into a particular man that reminds you of your cruel step-father.
In order to successfully treat a person with PTSD they have to be guided to convert their implicit memories into explicit ones.
Trauma is Recorded in the Limbic System which sits on the Vegus Nerve.
An interesting physiological discovery is that our traumatic memories are housed in our limbic system. This might not mean much if it weren’t for that fact our limbic system is on top of our Vegus Nerve. When the vagus nerve is stimulated by pain, fear, other distresses, and at an extreme, fainting may occur since such stimulation of the nerve affects the pace of the heart. Such stimulation also causes nausea and cool, clammy skin.
Its now easy to see how memories not only affect our emotions but also our physical bodies.
Emotional Disregulation & Tension-Reduction Behaviors (Addiction):
When an implicit memory is jarred the body automatically releases the hormones of cortisol and adrenaline to give it power or enable it to go into the “flight” or “fight” (emergency) mode. However, for a person that has experienced emotional trauma, there response mechanism is a bit different. When a person with PTSD has their “flight” or “fight” system alerted they experience the current stress at a visceral or guttural level (soul depth) and have to shut down the hippocampus. Similar to a computer that is slowed down by too many programs running in the background, the mind shuts down certain parts (in this case the hippocampus) because it is too difficult to run it while in emergency mode. Implicit memories can cause one to live in a constant state of being overwhelmed. Past traumas that induce implicit memories also damage mood regulation. It is easy to see how the extra strain on a brain from trauma would affect our ability to stay an even keel.
When the mind tries to remember what has happened during a traumatic moment a person experiences emotional disregulation. There are three coping strategies a person may employ in dealing with emotional disregulation:
1) Avoidance: A person doesn’t want to talk about the trauma, think about the trauma, or be around anybody or anything that reminds them of the trauma.
2) Dissociate: They disconnect from reality which, without realizing, turns off the integrative links connecting the pre-frontal cortex to the limbic system. This means one disconnects from their experiences, which on the one hand helps them escape from the painful anxiety that would normally come, but on the other hand is detrimental from an emotional stand point. You lose the ability to feel anything through this numbing process; even the ability to empathize for others. This is damaging to the psyche.
3) Tension-Reduction Behaviors (leads to Addictions): When trauma occurs the brain fires up, becomes overactive and makes a person feel they cannot deal with it without the aid of some type of pleasure to “settle things down.” This is the point where a person may turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, etc. It is here, at this stage of the process, that lends itself toward addictions.