The Connection Between Unresolved Trauma & Addiction

Trauma and addiction are quite often linked closely to one another. Sometimes addiction occurs as a result of trauma, whether its developmental, attachment, adaption, or relational. Often trauma is an underlying issue when it comes to addiction and more often than not it the primary source. In some cases, people with developmental trauma could accumulate some 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 (1997) concluded that the 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.

While self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders, compulsive sexual addictions, and substance abuse can serve as coping mechanisms for underlying trauma, treatment for the trauma must take place once the behavior has subsided (for example, 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.

As a result of traumatic attachment with the primary attachment figures during childhood, a lack of secure connection in relationships takes places during adolescence and throughout adulthood. This problematic connection can undermine a person’s ability to properly regulate their emotions and manage appropriate relationships. Van der Kolk (2015) hypothesized that psychological trauma disrupts formative developmental periods and causes survivors to be at risk for persistent forms of dysregulation. There is a strong correlation between these forms of interpersonal dissonance and the development of addiction.

Familial and relational dynamics can be heavily affected by trauma that takes place long before any significant indicators or damaging behaviors surface. The secure emotional connections with significant others can be a powerful antidote for dysregulated emotions and will provide a source of corrective emotional experiences.

On the other hand, insecure attachment could be the cause of re-traumatization, which is illustrated in the following example. Susan is dealing with untreated complex PTSD and her husband, Mark, grew up in a house with an emotionally unavailable father and a critical, verbally abusive mother. Susan gets startled when Mark hugs her from behind:

Susan: Don’t ever grab me like that. You know that I hate it.

Mark: I don’t even know how to be with you. I feel like everything I do is wrong.

While Susan is experiencing shame about being a trauma survivor with severe PTSD symptoms, Mark is once again reminded of the core belief that he internalized as a child, which is ‘I will never be good enough’ and ‘I can never do anything right.’ This is an example of how the aftermath of trauma interferes with emotional connection in relationships and how a lack of emotional intimacy plays a part in the continuance of the trauma cycle.

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 an integration of traumatic experiences. An emotional engagement, acknowledgement of personal responsibility, expression of empathy, and open-mindedness can help people to create a new narrative for their life 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 survivor.

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