Most of us have experienced some degree of trauma in our lives. Trauma is subjective, and therefore it is impossible to predict what specific events may be traumatic for each individual, but frequently, unresolved childhood trauma is an underlying cause of addiction.
Trauma typically occurs upon a very upsetting or threatening event. The event overwhelms the nervous system, and the person experiencing the event is unable to integrate the experience or resolve the threat. The traumatized person will develop coping strategies to deal with the situation, often to in an attempt to find safety or protection. These coping strategies are developed under duress and are often counter to a person’s values.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” Trauma may be based on actual events experienced or witnessed in the past, or a perceived threat which did not actually happen the way a person remembers. Because children are significantly more vulnerable than adults, a significant amount of trauma happens in childhood, and this type of trauma is often one of the underlying, root causes of addiction.
Trauma is not “one size fits all”. In other words, an event that is traumatic for one child may have no impact at all on another. To illustrate, we will use an actual example from a former client that we will call “Jane”. Jane had an experience when she was four years old, where her mom left her in a shopping cart for a moment to go get the cereal box she forgot on the previous aisle. When this occurred, Jane had a full-blown panic attack, and at that moment, created a belief that she could not trust those who were supposed to protect her.
Another child may not have even noticed her mom was gone. Yet another child may have been happy that her mom was gone and left the shopping cart to go explore. Trauma is a very individualized experience and must be honored and treated as such.
Because of the incident described, Jane came to believe that at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath her and that she was unsafe. Jane spent most of her life in fight or flight mode and was hypervigilant, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. This belief made an “imprint” on her on many levels and informed much of her life. She suffered from anxiety and depression and began to self-medicate at an early age. This later developed into an addiction to prescriptions and alcohol. When she came to The Sanctuary, her life had become one of barely functioning, symptom managing and just trying to get through the day.
Once this trauma was identified and treated in our Integrative Addiction Recovery program, Jane was able to transform her disempowering underlying beliefs around safety and trust. Her anxiety and depression lessened, and she was able to overcome her debilitating addictions.
If you would like to learn more about our thoughts on trauma, please visit our page on Post Traumatic Distress Disorder (PTSD) or call us at +1 877 710 3385 discuss your specific questions on how trauma may be impacting your mental health or fueling your addiction.