When Trauma Slips Into Addiction and How to Find Your Way Back to Safety

Trauma therapy is invoked frequently in healing circles and recovery communities, but it can be difficult to define what it entails, let alone unravel the mystery of personal traumas. For women with addiction, it is important to understand that trauma is closely linked to substance abuse.

More often than not, a pattern of traumatic stress lies just underneath an addiction, emerging instantly once a woman gets sober. Some might say that the substance came to be relied upon as a means of trauma therapy or coping mechanism. At the same time, the lifestyle troubles that come with escalating addiction often lead women into situations where they experience re-traumatization and new traumatic events that further scar them. Even at its best, addiction does not help resolve trauma, but leads a woman further and further away from her best kept secret – the fact that her own body contains the solution to all of her suffering.

At Villa Kali Ma, we take an integrated approach to trauma therapy and PTSD treatment alongside substance abuse, in recognition of the fact that sobriety is sustained when trauma and substance abuse are treated not as separate disorders having nothing to do with each other, but rather as the intertwined phenomena that they are. There is a diagnosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which describes a pattern that constellates in the psyches of some people who have been exposed to acute events – wars, natural disasters, accidents, assault, and so on. Many women with substance abuse qualify for this diagnosis, and may be relieved to find their experiences reflected in its list of criteria.

In addition, there is a growing body of research tapping into the reality of what is sometimes referred to as developmental trauma. Developmental trauma describes the physiological response pattern which develops as a reaction to repeated, daily experiences of overwhelming threats, small or large. Things like neglect, abandonment, ongoing physical, sexual and psychological abuse, and anything else that might be classified as psychologically “overwhelming” to a person, may result in a chronic problem with traumatic stress. Trauma takes root in us when our body fails to complete its process of rebalancing after an overwhelming experience. Here is how it works.

Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems

Simplified, we can say that the body has two important systems operating in it, and that these, when working together harmoniously, allow us to be in a state of balance, in which our bodies are healthy and in which we feel good. These two systems are:

    1. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
    2. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)

The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with resting, digesting, healing, and rebalancing, bringing the body “down” into a relaxed, open, slower, softer state. Yin yoga, massage, baths, cuddling, meditating, making art, simply being in our bodies with a sense of delicious gentle aliveness – these are states that the parasympathetic system provides us with. When working, we:

    • Are able to breathe deeply and fully without forcing it.
    • Smile in response to something or someone in our environment.
    • Notice beauty in the sensory details of our world.
    • Experience safe, pleasurable feelings in our bodies.

The sympathetic nervous system, by contrast, is the one that takes us “up”, which pumps us full of adrenaline, alertness, excitement and stress. When working, it:

    • Causes our hearts to pound, our breathing to constrict, our muscles to tense up.
    • Mobilizes all the resources available to us to give us superhuman strength for a moment, which we may need to save our child from danger, to fight off an attacker, or to get away in time from a predator.
    • Is a beautifully designed mechanism which nature intended for us to experience for short periods of time, with a clear beginning and end, when necessary for facing an overwhelming threat of some kind.

The part of our brain that decides whether or not there’s a threat in the environment, and hence when to flick on the switch for the sympathetic system, is ancient and incredibly fast. It’s the part that takes your hand off the stove before you even know what it was that burned you. It’s known as the reptilian brain, and it is the part of you with one and only mission in life – keeping you alive. Our reptilian brains can and will override the other parts of us if necessary to keep us alive. If the reptilian brain detects a threat, the body automatically activates the sympathetic system, without stopping to see what our emotions and thoughts have to say about it. This is not in our control and happens automatically before we even know it.

Once the sympathetic system is running, it has a number of effects on the body, all about preparing the body for fight or flight (a third response, the freeze or play dead response, occurs if absolutely necessary after fight and flight are dismissed, but is more rare – for our purposes it’s enough to think about the energies of fight and flight). Imagine that you are walking along in the woods, and you hear a crackle in the trees behind you. Automatically, without your consent, your reptilian brain flicks the switch on that sympathetic nervous system, sending you into an activated, alert mode, ready to deal with any potential threat.

Your body floods with energy, which you are ready to use the moment you need it – your muscles tense, your breathing shallows, your heart quickens, your attention becomes laser-focused. If the crackle turns out to be a bear, you will probably use the energy that just flooded into your body to run away. If it turns out to be a human being who appears to be about to attack you, but whom your reptilian brain judges to be fightable, that same energy might be used to engage in some self-defense, martial arts, or straight out brawling to defeat them. If a little bunny hops out and you have absolutely nothing to be afraid of, the arousal energy will leave your body, perhaps through a sigh of relief, “phew”.

In all three of these cases, the energy that was flooded into your body needs to exit your system and discharge. Once the threat is over, and the episode is done, due to having successfully run away or fought off or reevaluated the threat, your parasympathetic system kicks in and lets you come back to a state of peace. Like a parachute, parasympathetic slows you down, causing your heartbeat to slow down again, your muscles to relax, your breath to become deep and full. The way nature intended it, once you are safe again, you get to go back to feeling good – soft, relaxed, at peace, open to the world around you.

The process of transitioning from sympathetic “high gear”, back into the relaxed, safe-feeling state has some telltale signs that occur – little shakes and jerks of your body, yawning, trembling, spontaneous deep breaths, and maybe some automatic self-soothing movements like putting your hands to your chest. These little body events are signs that you are transitioning back to a state of calm, relaxed wellness. (If you have pets you may be able to observe how beautifully they are able to transition between springing into action and then “coming back down” when it is time to relax again. Moments after barking viciously at a threat, your dog may roll over onto her back for her tummy to be rubbed, in a posture of total trust and openness.)

Trauma is what happens when our own fight-flight energies, mobilized by our reptilian brains firing up the sympathetic system in response to a perceived survival threat, get trapped in the body with no way to exit. The traumatized person is someone whose body has lost touch with how to transition out of fight-flight, back into parasympathetic rest-and-digest. Such a person is at the mercy of “trauma triggers” – or events in present day life which sends her back to that hyper-aroused state she has never quite figured out how to get out of. When trauma is triggered by events that might not even be related, we are nevertheless automatically directed into fight flight again, from which state we experience ourselves as imprisoned in a sustained, hellish condition of constant stress.

Being in fight flight mode affects our thinking and our perception – life appears to be full of threats that need to be avoided or battled, but which we do not have the confidence we can face. When triggered into fight-flight, which happens very easily for traumatized people, who are sensitized to perceive threats everywhere, the body is arrested, stuck in a rut, unable to move back down into feelings of safety, even decades after the threatening event is technically over. How did those of us with trauma develop this glitch in our nervous systems? The answer lies in our personal histories. If, when we were growing up, we were in a situation that involved overwhelming threats to our survival on a regular enough basis, we may have been hardwired to stay in fight-flight a lot of the time.

For a child, survival depends not just on staying safe from attackers, but also on managing to get our parents, teachers, and communities to care appropriately for our many needs. The world of adults around us was likely filled with people who were too wounded themselves to create the conditions we deeply needed to feel genuinely safe in all the ways a child does. Even if our basic needs for food, shelter, and protection from harm were met, our little reptilian brains would fire up the sympathetic system if there was any threat of abandonment or rejection, any kind of withdrawal of love, any disapproval, or expression of intense anger. An added challenge is that when we are in fight or flight mode, our body is mobilizing us for action.

However, the action our body is mobilizing for may be unwise to act on in that situation. This is even more the case for children: to actually fight our opponents, to scream with rage or express the fight response, was frowned upon at best and at worst would put us at risk for further attack, just as to flee would mean to have no food, shelter, protection or love anymore and was therefore impossible. When the people upon whom we were forced to depend for survival were also the source of intense, annihilating threats like sexual abuse, we were especially trapped, bombarded with physiological impulses we had to suppress. A person who grew up in those ways will often have a baseline of fight-flight.

For her, the normal state is to be hypervigilant, always scanning the environment for danger, with the reptilian brain frequently in charge, in a world full of overwhelming threats. This state of constant sympathetic overdrive usually carries on even when she has actually grown into an adult well able to remove herself out of the influence of a threatening person or place, whose survival is no longer dependent upon the love of her parents. Through being in fight-flight so much during formative years, her very perception becomes chronically colored with its primitive, reptilian understanding of the world as a place of danger.

For such a person, forever trapped in an uncomfortable, hypervigilant, stressed state, drugs and alcohol may be experienced as a safe way to modulate herself and get some blessed relief. Since her body has forgotten how to return from a state of hyperarousal back down to feelings of safety, she uses drugs to get herself there. On the flip side, she may be drawn to stimulants that help her stay in a speedy, amped up place where she feels more safe from danger because her body is in the hyper-aroused state she associates with readiness to respond in time to threats. You can see that for a woman with trauma responses coded into her body who also has problems with substance abuse, she will need to find a way to get her natural system of returning to safety working again.

If she stays stuck in high fight-flight, stressed out, overwhelmed, both angry and terrified, which are the emotions that accompany that state, she will always be tempted to use drugs to get her out of there. If she can reactivate and repair her natural system of restoration, however, she can learn how to free herself from that state. Trauma therapy and therapists work with the body’s natural ability to return itself to safe feelings. Through finding what safety feels like, through what is called resourcing and in general through getting in touch with the body’s wisdom, trauma therapy therapists help get the parasympathetic running again.

Together, the client and trauma therapy therapist build a vast reserve of ways that the body can discover and sustain good feelings, until feeling safe is a stable, reliable and frequent experience. Once the body is regularly able to go into feelings safety and stay there, a person with trauma can finally process her history of overwhelming events little by little. This will happen in part through allowing some of her natural reactions of fighting and fleeing to get expressed, perhaps through art, exercise, and other outlets. She will also recover simply through allowing the parasympathetic system to return her to the experience of relaxed, open, delicious safety again and again. In this way, slowly and gently, her body will process, until the experience of overwhelming threat is finally actually over for her.

Personalized Trauma Therapy and PTSD Treatment Programs for Women

At Villa Kali Ma, we work with great care and recognition for the realities of trauma therapy and how it works in the body, brain, nervous system, and psyche. As a support, we provide a variety of different trauma therapy modalities and related PTSD treatment programs such as:

    • EMDR
    • Somatic experiencing
    • CranioSacral therapy (CST)
    • Yoga, breathwork and massage

The types of practices that help a woman with trauma find her way back to experiences of goodness, safety and expansion that do not come from drugs and alcohol. From that state of feeling good, strong, relaxed, safe, and capable, she can finally begin to live with the sense of natural pleasure to be alive that nature intended her to have all along. At Villa Kali Ma, we invite you to explore our trauma therapy and PTSD treatment programs for women, and we openly and warmly welcome you to join our recovery community of healing.


What is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the name given to a cluster of mental health troubles that affects people who survive or witness terrifying events. 

Before the clinical name of post-traumatic stress disorder was given, the same phenomenon was known as “shell shock”, referring to the evident psychological and nervous damage sustained by survivors who witnessed or fought in the World Wars. 

PTSD is historically associated with combat veterans and those who live in countries at war, as the extremely disturbing events of war leave lasting impacts on people who are exposed to atrocity and violence. However, PTSD may develop in anyone who is exposed to events that are overwhelming and threatening to a degree that it is impossible to return to a normal way of functioning after the experience. 

PTSD is characterized by a set of symptoms indicating a psychological and nervous-system fixation on past events, and include nightmares, flashbacks, and very severe anxiety. In addition, a person with PTSD is plagued with intense feelings of dread (it may feel as though they are dying) as well as intrusive, highly disturbing and uncontrollable thoughts. PTSD is a significant, intense form of suffering and for that reason it is highly correlated with drug addiction, depression, and suicide. 

Not all people who are exposed to violent, disturbing events develop PTSD. Many people who experience shocking events go through a difficult period afterwards, during which time they find a way to process and release their body’s initial responses, and adjust to the impacts made by these events. With time, gentleness and support, people may get better on their own. 

For many people, however, symptoms of dread, fear, numbing, flashbacks, and intrusive memories do not subside. Rather, their symptoms get worse, intensifying and increasing in frequency as time goes on. When symptoms are so severe as to interfere with the ability to function day to day in the ordinary world, a diagnosis of PTSD may be given.

Getting help, for example through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, or another trauma therapy modality, is highly advised for anyone struggling with post-traumatic stress. 

It is important to understand that disturbances to our bodies, minds, and souls of the order of magnitude represented by PTSD are encoded and stored in the brain and nervous system at levels that are so deep within us that they are outside of the reach of conscious control. PTSD is best healed through approaches that can work with the bodily dimension of our being as a starting point, bridging from there into conscious thought and feeling. 

How does PTSD affect the brain and body

Post-traumatic stress disorder impacts both brain and body deeply. When we are exposed to shocking events, these events and the sensations we experienced in the body during the event are recorded as memories in the brain. 

When we are scared for our lives, or shocked to the core, our brain will flag these memories as especially important, because the events were in one way another marked as a life or death matter. 

It is a normal, biologically appropriate response to respond to life or death situations with nervous system arousal. Nervous system arousal means going into the so-called Fight-Flight-Freeze response (sometimes called Fight-Flight-Freeze-Faun or Fight-Flight-Freeze-Appease). 

These responses are very uncomfortable states of activation of our entire system, and while we are in these reactions we have restricted breathing, tensed up muscles, rapid heart rate, and other forms of “mobilization”. Mobilization means that our bodies are prepared to take quick, powerful action to respond to a threat. This mobilization happens at lightning-quick speed before we are conscious of what we are thinking or feeling. 

What happens when we are traumatized is that we are unable to allow the mobilized state to pass, which would normally signal the body to relax again and return to feelings of safety. One reason for this can be because the event was so overly shocking that we are essentially “broken” by the event at the psychological and nervous system level.

Another situation where traumatization often happens is when terrifying events are so prolonged, ongoing, or repeated that we go into mobilization so frequently as to form a habit, a state of distress we get used to and stabilize around. 

When that happens, we have sustained post-traumatic stress and may end up with a diagnosis of PTSD. When our traumatization is serious enough, we will develop many problematic symptoms and adaptations to those changes in our body’s core set point.   

Research indicates that such traumatization may create long-lasting, even permanent changes to our brain and nervous system functioning. The key problem is that we respond habitually to non life-threatening situations as though they, also, represent a threat to our survival. 

When we respond to firecrackers the same way that we respond to gunfire, even when we are aware the loud noise is “just” a firecracker, this is an example of the way that our ability to process and sort dangerous from non-dangerous stimuli has been impaired through our previous traumatization. In general one way of understanding the traumatized state is to say that we lose the ability to tell the difference between the scary events of our past and things happening in the here and now moment.

Research into the brain and nervous systems of those with PTSD indicate that changes may take place in the functioning of our amygdala (part of our inner alarm system that triggers a panic state when deemed necessary to survive), as well as our pre-frontal cortex, the part associated with thinking something through before we take action. 

Normally, our pre-frontal cortex can help us make rational decisions even when the panic alarm has been triggered, for example when know that there is no danger, even if our body believes there is because of a sudden noise or trigger that reminds us of a past situation. When we have trauma however, not only does our alarm system go off more frequently, we lose our ability to override the impulse to panic, and lose the ability to think clearly and make conscious choices in the moment.  

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD symptoms are classed by clinicians into four categories: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changed physical and emotional responses. 

Symptoms are not static, nor will they present in the same way in each person, so keep that in mind when learning more.

Intrusive memories come into our minds unbidden, encroaching on our peace of mind. They often come out of nowhere and at inopportune moments, when we are trying to focus on something else. Recurrent, highly distressing episodes of remembering the original scary event fully, reliving the intensity of it, disturbing nightmares, and strong physical or emotional reactions to triggers that remind us of our original event are all part of the intrusive aspect of PTSD.  

Avoidance symptoms are what we call it when we change our behavior because we are worried that we will be reminded of our traumatic events or triggered into states of intense distress. When we avoid people, places and things specifically as a way to manage our intrusive memories, that can be a symptom of PTSD. 

Negative changes in thinking and mood are another symptom of PTSD. People with PTSD frequently feel depressed and anxious (in fact they may be misdiagnosed as having only depression or anxiety, if the trauma element is not recognized). Alongside these depressed and anxious feelings, thoughts may harbor a hopeless outlook, create feelings of detachment and disconnection from loved ones, and generate negative ideas about oneself or others. 

PTSD can also create changes in physical and emotional responses to the world around us. After shocking events and lingering traumatization, people are often more easily startled by sudden noises or movements. They may become hyper-vigilant, always on guard for potential danger. Self-destructive behavior and habits can easily get a foothold, such as use of drugs or other dangerous behavior. People with PTSD often seem angry, irritable, edgy and aggravated on the outside, while suffering with overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame internally. 

Causes of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops as a result of being exposed to very frightening events. Death, serious injury, war, violence, and sexual violation are examples of the types of events that most typically lead to the appearance of PTSD patterning in a person’s psyche and body. Overwhelming, life-threatening events are the origin of traumatization.

It is important to understand that even though PTSD is caused by exposure to violence and harm, post-traumatic stress does not develop into a disorder in every person who is exposed to horrifying events.

Some people who survive combat, childhood physical abuse, sexual violence, physical assault, or accidents struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress for a limited period of time afterwards, but are able to recover. 

These people are able to successfully heal from the influence of the events, so that they do not end up trapped in a nightmarish pattern of re-experiencing the event’s damaging effects in their mind, bodies, and emotions over and over again. Those who have good support systems and receive help for the experience they went through are more likely to recover and repair themselves.   

Others are not so fortunate. PTSD develops when the brain and nervous system of a survivor is so impacted that the natural, biologically appropriate responses that were aroused by the event get stuck in one’s body and soul and aren’t able to be released. The shock, pain, devastation, rage, and fear for one’s life get so deeply imprinted that the survivor isn’t able to shake off these reactions and return to their normal state of being.

More research is needed to say more about why some people develop PTSD and others exposed to the same events don’t have the same trouble releasing the biological activation response. There appears to be a connection between those who have experienced developmental trauma, such as those who survived childhood neglect or abuse, and a tendency to develop PTSD patterning later on, if exposed also to violent or otherwise life-threatening events. 

Those who may have a sensitive nervous system or temperament to begin with may be more likely to develop the disorder. People who are prone to other mental health struggles, such as depression or anxiety, are more likely to develop the disorder. There is a high correlation between substance use and PTSD as well, suggesting not only that those with PTSD are likely to turn to substances to cope, but also that those who have a past history of substance addiction would be more likely to develop PTSD in response to a shocking event.

There are also correlations established between PTSD and people who come from families with mental illness, including other family members diagnosed with PTSD. Finally, certain careers are more likely to cause PTSD to develop, such as working as medical personnel in emergency rooms, as first responders, or working in the military. 

Treatment for PTSD

Seeking help for PTSD is strongly recommended, because it is a disorder that arises from impacts to one’s brain and nervous system in ways that are beyond a person’s conscious awareness or control. 

As sufferers will attest, we can’t “unsee” certain things, and these shocking visuals (and other sense perceptions) become deeply encoded in a way that creates a permanent pathway to over-activation of our nervous system (severe distress), every time we are reminded of the original cause. 

Such patterns of stress, once formed, are not easily undone through reasoning alone, so it is suggested that people receive support that works with the body level of being. 

A very powerful modality that we offer at Villa Kali Ma is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This modality approximates the same movements used during REM sleep state to help our brains appropriately process, sort, and release the sense memories of the events we endured. The goal of EMDR is to deactivate the link between these memories and the signal to flood the nervous system, so that one eventually is able to have conscious recall of events without being sent into a state of mobilization (fear, stress, anger, devastation, shock, etc).

Another modality for getting help for PTSD is Somatic Experiencing. Somatic Experiencing is a powerfully effective form of body psychotherapy that was specifically created to work with trauma survivors. Somatic Experiencing helps someone with PTSD learn to successfully complete the trauma response, to move past the fear and into the stage when one has returned to safety. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has also shown promise for working with PTSD in a structured, goal-oriented way. CBT focuses on the ways that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions become enmeshed in problematic patterns fused to nervous system activation, and works to tease out these pieces and repattern. 

Parts Work (also called Internal Family Systems), Expressive Arts Therapy, Mindfulness, Yoga, Gardening, and Nutritional Therapies can all be an important part of recovering from PTSD, as well. 

If you are a woman struggling with addiction and you’re considering treatment at Villa Kali Ma, know that we will support your recovery journey by providing the best modalities for healing PTSD and trauma, as well. No one should have to live any longer in a state of waking nightmare, especially since effective help is available!  

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