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:
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
- 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:
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.