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Often trauma is an underlying issue when it comes to addiction and more often than not it the primary source.

However, understanding and untangling the complicated relationship must begin with an understanding of what constitutes trauma. A plethora of research on trauma and its lasting effects has unfolded over the past couple of decades, resulting in two informative and accessible books: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, Ph.D. and Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, Ph.D.

Herman defines trauma as, “Any event in which one is forced to respond to the extremities of helplessness and terror.” van Der Kolk further delineates what makes trauma different than other types of emotional upheaval: “Trauma that occurs at the hands of people who are supposed to take care of you, if you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on, and you can get stuck on the situation.”

It estimated that 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. The results of untreated trauma can vary greatly and are influenced by a host of factors including age, severity, socio-economic background, availability of resources, and protective factors — to name a few. In some cases, people with developmental trauma may gain elements of a positive sense of self through extreme forms of denial. However, frequently it will manifest in self-destructive behaviors in the future.

Herman concluded that chronic childhood abuse manifests as emotional rage through anxiety and dysphoria and leads to extreme states of panic, despair, and rage. If this developmental trauma remains untreated and is carried into adulthood, it may be the cause of depression, anxiety, and in many cases substance abuse and addiction.

Self-destructive behaviors, such as eating disorders, compulsive sexual addictions, and substance abuse, can serve as coping mechanisms for underlying trauma. However, treatment for trauma must take place once the behavior has subsided (once a person suffering from substance dependence is admitted to a treatment facility where they can no longer consume drugs/alcohol). Often the destructive and self-sabotaging behavior is only a solution to a deeper-rooted problem, such as traumatic experiences that took place during childhood.

This problematic connection can undermine a person’s ability to properly regulate their emotions and manage appropriate relationships. Van der Kolk believes that psychological trauma disrupts formative developmental periods and causes survivors to be at risk for persistent forms of dysregulation (difficulty managing and regulating one’s emotional responses).

Trauma can affect the whole family. While a friend, family member, or significant other is working on their trauma-related issues, it is important that loved ones and the family unit are conscious of their own work. The process of traumatic healing can be a reparative experience for the individual and everybody in their life.

The first step is to create personal awareness and the integration of traumatic experiences. An emotional engagement, acknowledgment of personal responsibility, expression of empathy, and open-mindedness can help people to create a new narrative for their lives and their experiences of relationships and of life. It is possible to move from the self-identity of a victim to the newly developed identity of the survivor.

Once the trauma survivor has achieved sobriety working with a therapist trained to treat Trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is essential. A licensed alcohol and drug counselors (LADC) may or may not have trauma training. Additionally, the benefits of Somatic Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) cannot be understated.

EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Somatic therapy is a holistic therapy that studies the relationship between the mind and body in regard to the psychological past. In essence, it teaches the patient how to be with and fully feel their emotions, in order to gain self-awareness and start to gain agency over their emotions and lives.

This work requires patience and determination on the part of the patient as well as a well-established relationship with a trusted clinician. However, the rewards of regaining ownership over that which was once stolen are priceless.

Asking for help is the first step.

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