Some of the recent advances in addiction treatment have come from an increased awareness and understanding of trauma, trauma-related symptoms and how they impact the move into substance use and addiction. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda have completed groundbreaking research about the consequences of childhood trauma in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). This study clearly illustrates the impacts of a wide variety of traumatic experiences are cumulative and lead to significant adverse outcomes, including health issues and the misuse of mood-altering substances.(1)
The ACE Study demonstrates that substance use, as well as other compulsive behaviours, can become a way of managing the overwhelming experiences of childhood trauma and adverse experiences.
Mood-altering often begins as a way of coping with symptoms related to trauma. It can be a way to stop intrusive memories, self-soothe, manage anxiety, shame, or anger as well as offering ways to numb or dissociate.
A strong case has been made for the overwhelming contribution that trauma makes to problems with substance abuse and addiction. But unresolved trauma also contributes to patterns of relapse, especially when trauma-related symptoms have not been adequately identified or addressed in the course of treating addiction.
Two Basic Categories of Trauma Symptoms
The symptoms of trauma can be simplified if we view them as falling into two basic types. Trauma researchers often classify symptoms as being “bimodal” – having two distinct ways these symptoms are experienced. One category is referred to as “hyper-arousal” and is related to the increased activation of the fight or flight response following trauma or stress. The other category is referred to as “hypo-arousal” – it is more related to the freeze response of trauma and includes such experiences as numbing and dissociation.(2)
1. Hyper-arousal: High Activation, Intrusive Experiences, and Fear
The term “hyper-arousal” is used to describe the high level of activation that remains in the nervous system and the physical body following a traumatic experience. It is essentially an ongoing activation of the fight or flight response even after the threat or the trauma has ended. Some people continue to live in this state of high trauma activation, and it alters their experience of themselves and the world around them.
When this high activation of the nervous system remains following a trauma, it contributes to the development of trauma symptoms that fall into the hyper-arousal category.
This category of symptoms include:
The Nervous System is on High Alert: A person may be jittery or startle easily, more reactive, more impulsive as well as experience greater irritability or even aggressiveness. Hyper-vigilance becomes a way of being in the world – they are always watchful for any sign of potential threat. Sleep becomes difficult.(3) When nervous system activation is high, it also makes learning difficult.
Physical Symptoms: When the nervous system remains on “high alert” the body also remains on high alert. A person can experience overwhelming bodily sensations following trauma if the physical manifestations of the fight or flight response continue after the danger has passed.(2) Some of the physical symptoms include tension and stomach upset as well as all the physical manifestations of a fear response.
Re-experiencing Symptoms: These are the profoundly disturbing experiences that include trauma-based flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive images. Intrusive experiences are ways that a person continues to relive their original trauma.
Emotional Reactivity: The ongoing emotional experience following trauma can be one of reliving the primary emotions of trauma including heightened anxiety, fear, horror, shame, and anger. There can also be a greater struggle with expressing anger in appropriate ways.
Self-Destructive Behaviours: Trauma also leads to self-destructive behaviours that can be an attempt to manage the overwhelming experience of high activation – self-harm, disordered eating, compulsive sexual activity, and substance misuse become common experiences.(2)
2. Hypo-arousal: Avoidance, Numbing, Disconnection and Dissociation
The term “hypo-arousal” is used to describe another (and different) nervous system state that results from the high level of activation that remains in the nervous system and the physical body following a traumatic experience. Rather than a state of high activation experienced through the symptoms of hyper-arousal as listed previously:
Hypo-arousal symptoms show up as a state of dissociation or disconnection that results when trauma and traumatic stress become overwhelming, and the nervous system moves into a “freeze” response.
Peter Levine acknowledges that dissociation helps make the unbearable bearable. He describes this freeze response as being similar to both the accelerator and the brake being applied at the same time creating a forceful turbulence inside the body that produces the “hypo-arousal” symptoms of traumatic stress.(4) It is as if the wheels are spinning, but the car isn’t going anywhere. This type of response occurs without conscious thought – it is an instinctive response to an overwhelming experience. And it occurs, in part, as a way of buffering against the painful experiences of trauma symptoms.
When this high level of trauma activation in the nervous system results in a “freeze” response, it contributes to the development of trauma symptoms that fall into the hypo-arousal category. This category of symptoms include:
Physical, Emotional, and Relational Experiences: There is a sense of being emotionally numb, detached, or empty. A person can feel out of touch with their emotions and their body. There may be challenges with being forgetful or “spaced out”. Traumatic experiences can also create a tendency to withdraw and isolate. There can be an avoidance of intimacy or connection with other people.
Behavioural Symptoms: Those who learned to cope with trauma by dissociating or shutting down often continue to respond in similar ways when they face stress.(2) Hypo-arousal and dissociation are also significant contributors to mood-altering and addiction. Some people counter the pervasive experience of numbness and detachment by moving towards high-risk behaviours or sensation-seeking in dramatic ways including high-risk substance use and behavioural addictions such as sexual acting out and excessive gambling.
Substance Use and the Symptoms of Trauma
The use of mood-altering substances and compulsive behaviours are common among those who have been through traumatic experiences and who continue to suffer from ongoing trauma symptoms. For those who experience a constant sense of reliving their trauma and living in a state of hyper-arousal and the high activation of a chronic fight or flight response, it is no wonder they might seek out options to help them shut down or numb out.(5) For others, they use substances as a way of countering the numbness and detachment they experience in the hypo-arousal state. There is also research that defines substance abuse as an attempt to bring a sort of “chemical dissociation”.
Willie Langeland and his colleagues were some of the first researchers to study the concept of chemical dissociation. Their research points out that some substance users may have more limited ability to dissociate in the truest clinical sense – so they likely rely on mood-altering substances to produce a dissociative state.
“Traumatized individuals with limited capacities to psychologically dissociate may attempt to produce similar soothing or numbing effects by using psychoactive substances. These substances are used to enter and maintain dissociative-like states.”(5)
Although dissociative states tend to “feel better” than the state of high activation and hyper-arousal, they are certainly not healthier as they only bring further damage and numbing that results from an ongoing disconnection from healthier resources, coping tools, and relationships.
It is vital that clinicians understand addiction is often a symptom of the problem rather than the only problem that needs addressing. For many people who struggle with addiction, substance misuse began as an attempt to fix a problem that was created through trauma.
Thank you for your interest in this series "Trauma and Addiction: The Link We Can't Ignore. Stay tuned for additional posts that explore more about trauma, addiction, self-regulation, attachment, mental health, and the process of recovery.
Here are all the posts in “Trauma & Addiction: The Link We Can’t Ignore (For Clinicians):
Intro to Trauma & Addiction Link (Clinician)
Part 1: The Problem (Clinician)
Part 2: The Negative Impacts (Clinician)
Part 3: Why People Use (Clinician)
Part 4: Medicating Trauma (Clinician)
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(A longer version of this article was originally published in the Serene Scene Magazine on February 1, 2017. You can view this article here.)
1Felitti, V., R. Anda, R. Lanius, E. Vermetten, and C Pain. "The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Medical Disease, Psychiatric Disorders, and Sexual Behavior: Implications for Health Care." The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease the Hidden Epidemic. 2010.
2Van Der Kolk, B. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. 2014.
3Luxenburg, T., J. Spinazolla, and B. A. Van Der Kolk. "Complex Trauma and Disorders of Extreme Stress (DESNOS) Diagnosis, Assessment: Part One." Directions in Psychiatry 21 (2001): 373-92. Trauma Center at JRI. 2001.
4 Levine, P. A. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. 2010.
5 Langeland, W., N. Draijer, and W. Van Den Brink. "Trauma and Dissociation in Treatment-seeking Alcoholics: Towards a Resolution of Inconsistent Findings." Comprehensive Psychiatry 43.3. 2002.