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Beyond Fight, Flight, or Freeze: Treating Addiction through Nervous System Regulation

Maura Nolan, LPC, LCMHC, NCC | Clinical Therapist

In this blog, Clinical Therapist Maura Nolan, LPC, ACMHC, NCC discusses the relationship between addiction and unresolved trauma as well as how she works with students facing with these challenges to regulate their nervous systems and build resiliency.  

Many of us are aware of the prevalence of addiction in the United States, with the Pew Research Center reporting that almost half of all Americans have a family member or close friend who’s been addicted to drugs. The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that over two million 12–17-year-olds report using drugs in the last month, and over one million 12–17-year-olds report binge drinking in the previous month.  

When discussing addictions, the assumption is often that the focus is on substances such as drugs or alcohol. Addictions can also include the internet, television, video games, cell phones, self-harm, isolation, gambling, sex, pornography, and more. The data on these addictions is harder to come by, but overwhelmingly, most parents can relate to the issues that arise from screen addictions or the pain of learning that one’s child is self-harming. 

Addiction and the Nervous System

Many of us are familiar with the myriad problems associated with addictions; however, a person’s addiction is often an underlying symptom of a deeper unresolved issue or trauma. Traumatic experiences can occur at any age, but those that occur in childhood (0–17) are referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and have been linked to negative health issues later in life, including addictions, mental illness, and suicide attempts. ACEs include the death of a parent, divorce of one’s parents, mental illness of an immediate family member, and experiencing violence, abuse, and neglect in the home. The more adverse childhood experiences one has, the more likely one will experience chronic health issues, mental illness, compromised immune systems, and trauma symptoms. 

People who have suffered trauma or ACEs experience overactivity in the nervous system, resulting in system dysregulation. Trauma often inhibits the body and brain’s capacity to cope, leaving a person stuck in a trauma response, such as fight, flight, or freeze. There may be a desire to avoid the pain or problem, numb feelings associated with it, or isolate from others. This is where addiction comes into play.  

People with dysregulated nervous systems often respond to challenges in their lives inappropriately, either by under-reacting or over-reacting. In other words, they try to regulate and manage their distress in a maladaptive way. They may turn to drugs, drinking, sex, or other unhealthy distractions. While these distractions may provide short-term relief, they almost always result in long-term detriment. 

Polyvagal Theory

The flight, fight, or freeze reactions are defined in Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. When our bodies perceive threats to our safety, our nervous system responds with sympathetic arousal. People in sympathetic arousal first attempt to move away from danger, the response known as flight. If the flight system doesn’t work, fight kicks in with increased aggression and confrontation. If all else fails, the nervous system activates with a freeze response. Freeze often presents as numbness, rigid body posture, and slowness in speech, movement, and thought. 

As a clinical therapist at Open Sky, I see students who struggle with nervous system dysregulation and resulting addictions. A student may turn to substances to try to soothe the system but ultimately cause the system more distress. Substances also rewire our brains and increase the likelihood of getting stuck in flight, fight, or freeze.  When students come to Open Sky, they no longer have access to substances and are challenged to rewire their nervous systems with different forms of coping that will contribute to feelings of safety. 

The Trauma Vortex

Often, someone who has experienced trauma may get stuck in what is known as the trauma vortex—a downward spiral that can cause one to feel stuck in their trauma and unable to control their sensations, images, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Someone in a trauma vortex might become overwhelmed, shut down, and lose the ability to make logical decisions in the moment. The trauma vortex is addicting because it causes an opioid-like effect in our brains. Experiencing the trauma vortex may result in someone turning toward drugs or drinking to escape the chaos. 

At Open Sky, we work with students who’ve experienced trauma and addictions to help get them to more regulated nervous systems or into the “green zone.” In this state, students are acting with their best behaviors. They feel safe and like their basic needs are being met. In the green zone, students feel grounded, present, and calm. In this state, students are less reactive and feel present and aware. Learning to cultivate a regulated nervous system on their own is critical. It allows students to move from a trauma state to a safe state.  

At Open Sky, we use nature as a unique backdrop to help students learn to build resiliency and regulate their nervous systems.

Resiliency, Grounding, and Orienting

Resiliency is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It is something that is learned and helps to develop deeper emotional capacity when people experience hardship. Returning to the green zone, especially after experiencing a trauma or relapse, promotes and reinforces resiliency. So, what might this look like in action? 

Grounding tools are core to my therapeutic work at Open Sky. Grounding is a technique that helps people stay in the present, regulate their nervous system, and re-orient to the here and now (as opposed to remaining in a trauma state). When students practice grounding skills, they learn how to self-soothe their nervous systems. It is one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox when working with students who’ve experienced trauma and post-traumatic stress. 

One grounding skill I use with students is the process of orienting, which is bringing one’s attention to something pleasant around them. I’ll ask my students to look around and notice the fluffiness of a cloud, the bright embers of a fire, or the outline of the Milky Way. I’ll ask what they’re noticing and bring their attention to where positive feelings are settling in their bodies. I’ll have them “hang out” in the positive emotions, seeing if they grow or shift to another part of the body. If a student notices a negative sensation, I’ll acknowledge it but ask them to refocus their attention on any area that feels good in their body and, in doing so, bring them out of the trauma vortex. With practice, this skill increases resiliency and the capacity to take in the good and can help individuals feel more grounded and present in their bodies. 

Tracking Movements and Installing Resilience in the Body

I also track individuals’ movements when we are in session together. This is huge, as trauma gets stuck in our bodies. For instance, I had a student who stored a lot of trauma in her neck. When she talked about her experiences, her neck would tense, and she would move it backward. This was not something she was consciously aware of, so I asked her to notice the difference between tensing her neck and bracing backward, as opposed to softening and letting her neck hang forward. I repeated this process several times, allowing the student to slow down and feel the difference in the movements. She reported feeling relaxed and at ease after allowing her body to experience the difference between holding and releasing tension. Her nervous system had dropped back into the green zone and out of the trauma vortex. The more she practiced re-entering the green zone, the quicker she could do so throughout her stay at Open Sky. 

Social Connection

Another key strategy we emphasize at Open Sky to address trauma and addictions is social connection. Science has demonstrated how positive social interactions can relax the nervous system, reduce stress, and bring us a sense of comfort and calm. Students experience healthy relationships through the support they receive from their peers and Open Sky staff and by reconnecting more intentionally with their family members. This sense of belonging and authentic connection helps to fill a void brought about by addiction and trauma. 

Most individuals with addictions have experienced some trauma leading to unhealthy ways of coping with their trauma vortex. At Open Sky, we use nature as a unique backdrop to ease students into the green zone to help them learn to build resiliency and regulate their nervous systems. Through grounding techniques, tracking movements, social connection, yoga, and breathwork, Open Sky students are becoming empowered with tools they can use throughout their lives. They will have strategies to turn to instead of substances or screens to regulate challenging moments. 

November 17th, 2022

Maura Nolan, LPC, LCMHC, NCC | Clinical Therapist