May 26, 2020

How Childhood Trauma leads us to Addiction.


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“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. For me, there’s no distinction except in degree between one addiction and another: same brain circuits, same emotional dynamics, same pain and same behaviors of furtiveness denial and lying.” ~ Gabor Maté


I’ve suffered from addiction.

The types of addictions I have met were of different types.

Initially, I used food as a coping mechanism. I think this was in my early 20s.

As I grew older, this moved to alcohol. It didn’t last and never really settled within my energy to the degree that I would truly become what they call “alcoholic.”

But the energy of addiction was definitely there—and still lingers around me sometimes.

So I have asked myself why. And the why is—as for many things that we know are “bad” for ourselves yet we can’t avoid doing—the past.

I will try and explain in this post why childhood trauma can lead us later to addiction and why the use of substances can be easily correlated with early traumatic experiences.

Adults who suffered with abuse as children are 1.5 times more likely to become addicts later in their lives.

Why exactly does this happen?

Research has shown that substances may be used for several reasons: blocking out traumatic memories when they come up, dealing with loneliness or a sense of isolation, or coping with anxiety or stress that isn’t understandable to the individual.

Trauma survivors often combine all of them.

The use of substances can be heightened when one feels massive surges of anxiety or panic attacks, or experiences a phase of depression. What distinguishes “worry” from anxiety, or “sadness” from depression is that the latter are persistent, intense, and feel unconquerable.

Such feelings can be daily for trauma survivors.

Trauma survivors may shift toward addictive behaviors because the sensations they experience at an emotional level are unmanageable.

At the root of addiction, in fact, is a deep emotional stress that seems impossible to solve, because the roots of it feel so profoundly buried within the person’s mind and subconscious that addressing it seems either impossible, overwhelming, or unfathomable.

To ease such significant pressure, the individual goes to mechanisms that are excessive too. Ceasing the addictive behaviour means that the initial emotional stress could return.

The presence of addiction shows that the individual has not found healthy coping mechanisms to handle it in another way. The addiction is what the person has ended up choosing as the best thing to do when the overwhelming sensations come back.

What exactly connects childhood trauma to the mechanisms of addiction?

The best way to understand the relationship between childhood trauma and susceptibility to addiction is to delve deeper into the brain’s development and plasticity. As the child grows up, the brain matures and therefore either creates and strengthens, or conversely discards, some possible neural connections.

When the child goes through traumatic experiences, their brain structure and connections do not develop normally. Which is key, as brain pathways that are formed at an early age determine how an individual will self-regulate and manage harder emotional states later in life.

In fact, one’s early experiences affect the brain development in a similar manner as learning new languages—which causes certain synapses, or connections, between neurons to either grow stronger or break.

Childhood maltreatment generates anomalies in brain structure—themselves resulting in cognitive or behavioural impairments. Continuous stress experienced in childhood can actually trigger structural disruptions that can even be observed in neurological scans.

In addition to that, emotional regulation is often developed through interactions with parents and other supportive adults during childhood. As children who experienced trauma have lacked the proper adult models to take example from, they may experience in adulthood an inability to manage negative emotional states.

When the home environment is harmful or unsupportive, children are less likely to be exposed to appropriate emotional labelling, expression, and regulation behaviours often modelled by primary caregivers—and therefore may be prone to re-enacting what they saw.

Also, a child who experiences massive stress has evidently fewer capabilities compared to an adult who would go through the same struggles to process the feelings effectively, and to take a step back from it all. They don’t yet have the behavioural references which could allow them to understand that what is happening within their families is not about them and doesn’t reflect on them. Instead, it describes the abuser and how they feel about themselves.

But a child doesn’t and can’t know that. As a consequence, they may identify with the way that they are treated and become unable to build a healthy sense of self-esteem.

This is how childhood can strongly influence our lives, insidiously—until things are brought back to awareness and healed.

What is a possible answer to addiction?

Maybe not the one that we are used to.

It can’t be to shame “addicts” or isolate them. It is not to cause more pain, or feelings of being the black sheep or not belonging to this world.

It’s by giving trauma survivors the feeling that they belong.

We must help, paradoxically, by accepting what is happening as it is without judgment or blame—and showing other ways to be present with the feelings that arise.

It is not about prescribing opiates or medicine, but seeking the root cause—which is pain stored at the core of the individual.

Addiction may only heal through space-holding and acceptance. Through a deeper and more supportive presence with oneself. Through self-love. Through mindfulness.

Addiction is not something one should “fight against.”

Instead, it is something one should recognize, accept, and make peace with.

It’s okay to carry wounds from the past.

It’s okay to be fallible. It’s okay to seek help.

It’s okay to speak up about what happened.

It’s totally fine that you developed coping mechanisms to handle the impossible.

And the truth is, it’s okay to forgive oneself.

And it’s okay to move forward.

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