Post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are highly correlated. That’s true whether we’re talking about the acute traumas sustained by war veterans or whether we mean the chronic psychological wounds of those surviving childhood abuse and neglect.
No one intends to be an addict. Many substances are addictive to humans just because of what’s in the chemistry, yes. But the reason addiction can get such a foothold within us in the first place is because it offers an answer to a deep, painful need.
Even though addiction is the opposite of healing, we can still recognize that what a person is trying to do when they use a substance is find a way to survive a level of burden that would otherwise fragment them into oblivion.
Substances change our bodily states, our emotions, and our thoughts. They also reduce the volume on pain, psychological or physical. People with trauma need extra help with all of those things.
That’s because those with developmental trauma, which is another way of saying childhood trauma, are impaired in their ability to manage their inner experiences and their outer behaviors.
As the name implies, developmental trauma interrupts our development, and we don’t get to grow up to the point of being a fully functional adult with the ability to make executive decisions and self-soothe our feelings.
Traumatized people do not complete their growing; rather parts of us get split off and left in the past at various stations where overwhelming events were too big to be resolved.
This splitting off is also a way of understanding that the traumatized person does not feel like a whole person. Rather, trauma turns us into a jumble of shadows, parts and portions of us who stay in back in our traumatizing childhoods even though we are physically adults now.
This is part of why it’s so important to refrain from judging addiction. Addiction is devastating and horrible to the addict and it wrecks lives, there is no debating that. But as with all problematic phenomena, it’s good to understand why and how this negative thing comes into being.
Addiction is rampant in our world because it is a safety seeking behavior.
Trauma is the opposite of feeling safe, in fact it’s one way to describe exactly what your body is doing when you have a stress response to a situation: the body is telling you, and preparing you physiologically, to address something that is a threat to your life.
For children, it’s important to remember, disrupted attachment bonds are a threat to life, so the stress response can kick in over situations that wouldn’t be life threatening to a fully grown adult, such as being left alone too long or making a caregiver angry.
When the biological, physiological response created by an event gets trapped in the body, and is not given the chance to resolve, it becomes frozen in the body and a part of the self splits off to protect and defend against conscious awareness of those thoughts and feelings.
Repeated stress also creates a lifelong habit of overriding awareness of one’s own inner states. If you’re a child, trapped for the next 10 years in a household of daily threats to your wellbeing, you will develop the skill of not taking the action that the body wants you to do (run away or fight back). Instead, you will learn to go still and numb.
If it’s not safe enough to run away (because we’d die without adult protection and care) and to fight back would make our situation worse (we’d be further punished or abused), we are left with freezing as our only option for surviving overwhelming events. Doing this over and over in childhood turns us into frozen adults with no idea how to feel what we need to feel, make good decisions, or move on from our troubles.
Most damagingly, we never learn to use our own power and agency, but rather remain in a feeling of perennial helplessness, the essence of the freeze response.
Being in chronic states of fear, anger, and helplessness all create a kind of inner pain which sets a person up to fall into the trap of addiction. So let’s try to give ourselves and each other a break, where possible, and see that even though addiction is a huge problem, it exists in our lives because of an even bigger problem, the trauma epidemic.