Addiction Isn’t “The” Problem
It shouldn’t surprise us that addiction has become one of the top health concerns in the North America:
It causes more illnesses, disabilities, and deaths than any other preventable health issue.
About 1 in 10 North Americans over the age of 15 report symptoms of alcohol or drug dependence.
Most people who struggle with addiction or substance abuse never enter a treatment program of any kind.
Of those who seek some form of treatment, the vast majority will continue to struggle with substance abuse.
This information just confirms what we already know: millions of North Americans live with the painful experience of addiction – and few get the help they need to recover.
But if addiction isn’t “the” problem, what is?
The Problem is the Problem
Here is a crucial piece of information: addiction is often a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself. While addiction certainly is another "problem", it's helpful to be curious about what drives the behaviours that lead to addiction in the first place. If you experience the excessive use of drugs or alcohol, your substance abuse probably began a way to ‘”fix” a problem.
Substance abuse is likely your way of managing a “problem” rather than being the only issue that needs addressing. If you don’t understand this, you will struggle in your recovery.
But what, exactly, is that problem?
The answer to that question is a complex one. Gabor Maté, the author of “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”, encourages us to ask not about why addiction occurs but “why the pain?”
What is the pain or problem your substance abuse is trying to “fix”?
Research in the fields of neuroscience and addiction, along with a greater understanding of the impacts of trauma and stress, provide us with some of the answers to that question. When trying to understand the seemingly baffling behaviours of substance abuse and addiction, it is important to understand, firstly, how the human nervous system is wired, and secondly, how things go wrong.
While trauma does not cause all addiction, we certainly have a growing awareness that painful life experiences and chronic stress are much more common, especially in the lives of those struggling with addiction. There is also a greater understanding of the profound impacts that trauma and chronic stress have on a person’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
Over the last number of years, there has been a significant movement towards identifying and exploring the connection between trauma and addiction.
Many people assume (wrongly) that the term “trauma” does not fit their experience. You may see your painful life experiences as just a part of life you wish to forget. Your challenging life experiences were just that – “life experiences”. Most people struggling with addiction seem quick to discount their experience – “that wasn’t trauma”, “that’s just the way it was”, or “other people have had it far worse”.
Research into the origins of addiction is clearly pointing us in the direction of considering the significant contributions of early life experiences as well as the impacts of chronic stress and trauma. Peter Levine, a leading psychologist in the field of trauma, argues that it is detrimental for someone to be unaware of the negative impacts trauma has had on their lives.
Not knowing or acknowledging you may have been traumatized doesn’t prevent you from being negatively affected by your experiences.
Trauma and its Connection to Addiction
The field of addiction research and treatment identifies trauma as a significant contributing factor to patterns of substance abuse and addiction. This current research shows us that traumatic experiences, especially when they occur early in life, create a greater vulnerability to developing substance abuse problems. Here are some statistics from a variety of sources that show just how significant this connection is:
In North America, the percentage of people diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) over the course of their lifetime is around 7%. In the substance-abusing population, this percentage increases dramatically – various studies show that 36-50% of people receiving treatment for substance abuse also experience the symptoms of PTSD.
Dr. Edward Khantzian, a Harvard Medical School researcher, developed the self-medication hypothesis of substance abuse. His research demonstrates that people with PTSD are four times more likely to develop problems with substance abuse than those without. A history of childhood trauma also leads to using substances at an earlier age as well as leading to greater substance abuse overall.
The National Comorbidity Study shows that as many as 46% of people with either PTSD or a substance use disorder also have the other condition. The research from this same study also suggests that trauma is more likely to occur before drug or alcohol abuse rather than after it occurs.
Even if you don't meet the criteria for an official diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is still helpful to recognize that trauma may affect your life and your substance abuse patterns in significant ways.
Can you allow yourself to consider that addiction may be just one of the symptoms of “the problem” of unidentified or unresolved trauma?
If you allow your perspective to shift in this way, it opens up more compassion for yourself and more understanding about your patterns of substance abuse. It just might help you move in the direction of making a lasting and positive change in your life and your addiction.
Here are all the posts in the "Trauma and Addiction: The Link Can't Be Ignored" series:
Part 1: The Problem is the Problem
Part 2: How Ignoring This Hurts Your Recovery
Part 3: Why People Abuse Substances
Part 4: Feeling No Pain