The Greek origin of the word Trauma means ‘wound.’ A wound can be an open, sore wound that is painful and exposed, or it can be an old wound that is covered over by layers of hard skin. Traumatic events leave both open and old wounds. Often we do not want to look at our trauma for fear of the pain, so we bury it, we turn away and we numb.
Gabor Mate defines addiction as any behaviour that gives you temporary relief, but that you crave, despite it bringing you negative consequences.
Any behaviour can be drinking, gambling, sex, drugs, shopping; we all have something, but if it is having a negative impact or influence over your life and you find it difficult to stop then it is an addiction.
“ALL ADDICTIONS — ALCOHOL OR DRUGS, SEX ADDICTION OR INTERNET ADDICTION, GAMBLING OR SHOPPING — ARE ATTEMPTS TO REGULATE OUR INTERNAL EMOTIONAL STATES BECAUSE WE’RE NOT COMFORTABLE, AND THE DISCOMFORT ORIGINATES IN CHILDHOOD.” GABOR MATE.
Addiction is a way of numbing and avoiding uncomfortable and painful emotions. It is a coping mechanism and why wouldn’t we want to find a way to cope with deep emotional pain? Many heroin addicts have described the feeling that they get from heroin as a warm embrace, or a loving hug; maybe something that they have always needed but have never been given.
DISCONNECTION AND ATTACHMENT.
When traumatic events have an impact on our lives we cannot function properly. There is a deep disconnect with ourselves. We lose the pathway home to our true selves. Deep in our unconscious minds we know that we are not who we have become. All of the compensatory and avoidance behaviours that have built up like layers of an onion over the years have all served to keep us safe from the external world and from further damage to ourselves. We no longer know who we are or how we feel. We no longer have a trust in our emotions or our gut instincts.
As children we develop a sense of self as we grow up. The messages that we are given either explicitly or implicitly through our parents are a huge part in developing this sense of self. A strong healthy attachment to our parents will create a stability within us. Our parents teach us how to emotionally regulate. As babies we watch our parents faces for cues; if we cry we watch closely for signs of safety in our mother’s face and once soothed we stop. If we are aged four and having a complete meltdown then our parents hold that space for us, they try to soothe us and we still know that they love us despite our behaviour. If we are supported and feel the love from our parents then we develop a healthy relationship to our selves and emotional safety.
If our attachment to our parents is insecure then the implicit message that we are given is that we are not loveable, defected in some way or at fault for things that happen. Children will always blame themselves for things that they don’t understand and aren’t explained; divorce for example. This may not be through any fault of our parents. Traumatised parents cannot always build a secure attachment to their kids. The insecure connection may be because our parents were overwhelmed, stressed and disconnected themselves.
As children we then have to make the choice of pleasing or taking care of our parents to make them love us, which results in the beginning of our loss of self. Then, as we grow into adulthood we forget where we have internalised the message that we need to please everyone to be loved and we spend our lives being the ‘people pleaser’ yet inside we feel unhappy and don’t understand why.
Systems in the brain.
The opioid system in our brains is worth taking a look at. We have natural endorphins in our brains that are released when we are in pain or stressed. Crucially, they enable the bonding that takes place between mother and child. When a child cries out in pain or discomfort both the mother and child have a flood of endorphins which allows for connection and attachment. The body’s natural opioid system does for us exactly what chemical opioids do; they soothe from both emotional and physical pain.
When we become addicted to substances our dopamine reward system is activated in our brain. We seek more and more of the chemical rushes. There is an area in our brains called the Ventral tegmental area (VTA.) This area is full of neurons that produces dopamine. There is a feeling of pleasure when dopamine is released and it is released through food that we enjoy, sex and addictive substances.
When an artificial opioid such as heroin is introduced, a rush of dopamine is released and causes a spike but cannot return to baseline. After a while our brains cannot release our natural dopamine. In order to keep feeling anything like pleasure the opioid needs to be increased. This is important to understand the cravings, withdrawal and seeking cycle that addiction creates.
HOW DO WE BEGIN TO HEAL?
FIND A SAFE SPACE.
It is important to feel safe when our brains and bodies are traumatised. Past and present traumatic experiences puts our bodies in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze response. Feelings of safety will soothe this response.
A safe space may be with a trusted therapist, friend, animal or imaginary place. Wherever you can be that you can begin to feel calm. This way our nervous systems can calm down and gives us the message that we are safe. A breathing meditation where you imagine a safe place that you have been to or a made up place can be helpful in beginning to provide a sense of security. Breathing deeply while relaxing each part of the body, then imagining your safe place can bring about an overall sense of calm and relaxation. Guided imagery can be found on YouTube or Headspace.
WE BEGIN THE NEXT PART OF THE JOURNEY BY UNDERSTANDING WHERE OUR DISCONNECT BEGAN.
With the guidance of a trusted, non judgemental therapist or friend we begin to tell our stories in our safe place. This will enable us to view our narrative from an adult perspective if these stories have been locked away inside since childhood. In itself, this is cathartic. Compassionate validation from a trusted safe person can begin to allow for the healing. We can begin to uncover our true selves beneath the layer of armour that we have built up.
In her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror , Judith Herman, M.D talks about when we begin to mourn our trauma there will be a sense of loss. A loss of childhood and a grief for the child within amongst other things. It is important to allow for the grief to be acknowledged. Know that this journey is a courageous act of self compassion and a desire to go on with the rest of your lives.
A trusted therapist can help to provide the tools for the self regulation that we didn’t learn as children. This is about understanding the emotions that we feel and being able to name what we feel. It’s about beginning to get back in touch with our selves through our emotions, and our bodies and through compassionate inquiry.
We begin by noticing our bodies in various states; what does it feel like when we are anxious, afraid or relaxed. Where do we feel the fear, which part of our bodies?? How does relaxed feel like? Can we take deeper breaths? We begin to be aware when we are feeling positive, relaxed feelings.
Moving the body through dance, yoga, shaking and any type of physical expression helps to release trauma that is trapped in the body. In some cases the physical traumatic response of freezing can become trapped in the body’s nervous system. Think about what happens in the animal kingdom. A cat will catch a mouse and the mouse ‘plays dead’. When the cat is bored with the mouse and it leaves, the mouse will revive itself, shake and carry on. When trauma gets ‘stuck’ in our nervous systems physical movement, much like the shaking of a traumatised animal, can help to release the trauma.
THE PATHWAY HOME AND A RE-CONNECTION WITH OUR TRUE SELVES MAY TAKE AS LONG AS IT TOOK FOR US TO BUILD UP THE ARMOURY THAT TRIED TO PROTECT US. ULTIMATELY THOUGH IT IS WORTH IT FOR A LIFE FREE OF EMOTIONAL PAIN.