Strategies for Healing Trauma and Addictive Behaviors
Nick Lenderking-Brill, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys
“Trauma” and “addiction” have become loaded buzz words in the world of pop psychology, with quite a bit of baggage attached to them. We have a tendency to throw these terms around carelessly. How often have you heard someone say they’ve been traumatized by watching a TV show or that they have a chocolate addiction? We may scoff or laugh at these descriptions, but in reality, our brains are constantly subjected to minor traumatic events, which can spur addictive processes.
While it’s important to distinguish between diagnosable trauma and the everyday trials of being human, we all experience some form of trauma or addiction in our lives. From feeling numbed from the reality of world news to checking our emails before brushing our teeth in the morning, trauma and addiction are part of our day-to-day experience. And yet, this is not an excuse to succumb to these processes. I am here to normalize the shared experience of trauma and addiction. Perhaps more importantly, though, I want to talk about what we can do to heal trauma and addictions—as individuals, parents, and clinicians alike.
Neurologically speaking, trauma and addiction are quite linked, but let’s first talk about how trauma shows up in the brain.
Trauma is borne out of a lack of control and a lack of safety. When faced with a threat, our first impulses are to try to regain control and safety. You’ve all heard the terms fight, flight, or freeze by now. When we experience a traumatic event, our nervous systems send us into one of these states in an attempt to regain power and safety. When we’re in fight or flight, that’s actually a healthy impulse in the brain to help us feel powerful and even ensure our survival. If fighting doesn’t work, and running away doesn’t work, then we shut down, or freeze. Think of a how effective playing dead is for a possum. A freeze state is just our body’s way of trying not to get eaten—physically or emotionally.
Let’s discuss an example of how this might play out. Say your child comes home past their curfew, and you’re livid. Think about what is being threatened here: your kid’s safety and well-being, and by extension, your own as a parent. Of course you’re going to do what you can to try to regain control and safety in this situation. First you yell—the fight response. When your kid yells back, all you want to do is run away from the situation— that’s flight. And the next morning when you wake up, you just feel numb and defeated—freeze. These are all automatic ways to combat the lack of control we feel when our sense of safety is threatened.
Another way to think about how trauma plays out is in terms of anxiety and depression. Anxiety is just an expression of the fight or flight response—we’re trying to control something we perceive as scary, and we get pretty worked up in doing so. Depression is what happens when anxiety doesn’t get us what we want. We freeze. Depression and anxiety are common experiences. Maybe we’re just trying to meet our needs in the best ways we know how.
However, always fighting, running, and shutting down is painful. What better way to take the anxious edge off or fill the depressed void than by turning to something outside of ourselves to feel better?
If trauma is characterized by losing control, it makes logical sense that we would turn towards addiction—a way of trying to regain control. Addictive processes tend to be rigid patterns—predictable, and even safe. Yet addiction is about more than just regaining control. It’s about meeting our brains’ basic needs for safety, especially when it comes to our felt sense of love and belonging.
Traumatic events leave a void of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, brain chemicals responsible for happiness, love, and feeling accepted. It’s no coincidence that mind- and mood-altering chemicals—from cocaine to chocolate to a cheese pizza—bind to those receptors and produce exactly those neurochemicals that our traumatized brains lack. Substances replace friends and family. With this understanding, we can offer a little grace to someone suffering from addiction. They’re just trying to feel powerful and loved again. And yes, pizza is a mind-altering substance. All of these substances have very similar effects on the brain in terms of how happy they make us. Who knew?
But here’s something we do know: addiction leaves a lot of destruction in its wake. I’m not just talking about drug addiction. Most of us have first-hand experience with compulsively using our phones, eating too much desert, spending too much money when we’re sad, or even obsessively seeking drama in our interpersonal relationships. What’s the way to take the edge off the anxiety, enliven the joy under the depression, feel healthy power, and regain a sense of love, safety, and belonging without destroying our health or relationships?
The good news: it’s totally possible.
The bad news: it’s freakin’ hard.
More good news: you can do it, and so can your kids.
To put it simply, if we can counteract the effects of our traumas, we won’t feel such a need to turn to addictive processes to ease our pain.
Our thoughts often feel out of control, but we can source control from knowing what is true in our bodies. Anxiety and depression live in our heads, and they tell us lies (“You’re not good enough” or “You’re a burden,” for example). By engaging our awareness with physical and sensory experiences that are indisputably present, we rein in our thoughts and take back control over our own experiences.
Breathe. Elongate your exhales beyond your inhales. In the field, we do a three-fold breath, which involves just this. If you inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, and then exhale for eight, you will activate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is in part responsible for the processes of rest and digest. Sounds a lot better than fight or flight to me.
Orient. Check out your surroundings. What beauty are your eyes naturally drawn to? Can you notice your body relaxing as you look around? If it feels good, pause and go towards the good! Keep noticing and feeling it!
Come to your senses. What are five things you see? Four things you hear? Three things you feel? Two you smell and one you taste? We call this a 5-4-3-2-1 in the field, and it reminds us of what is true and real and brings safety to our nervous systems.
Good support networks are the most powerful protection against remaining traumatized because safety counteracts threat. Trauma can extend from a lack of emotional or physical safety in relationships, so deepening your relationships is the remedy.
Hug your friends and family. The most natural way humans calm themselves is through touch. Of course, this only includes consensual touch from trusted individuals, as unwarranted touch can cause re-traumatization. Healthy touch can cause oxytocin to surge. Who needs drugs for that?
Talk about your feelings. I’ll be a therapist here and tell you to share. Feeling acknowledged gives us a sense of power. We can positively influence others with our words, and we feel accepted, safe, and connected when others truly listen to us. These emotional experiences help activate the brain in positive ways that can also produce oxytocin without external substances. As I tell my students, “Guess it’s time to bust an ‘I feel’ statement, isn’t it?”
Do something about it. Different people can be exposed to the same event but those who are able to do something to mitigate that feeling of helplessness oftentimes are not as traumatized. Healthy actions restore a sense of agency and empowerment. In the field, bow-drilling, hiking, yoga, and even chores (like hauling wood and water) all build a sense of accomplishment and confidence. These actions build resiliency, and of course, lead to our old friends, power and safety. “I can take care of myself!”
Healing is not automatic. It takes work. Build habits of breathing deeply, bringing awareness to your body, clearing your mind, giving hugs, sharing your heart, and taking physical actions to nourish yourself and build your own resilience.
Each and every one of us experiences trauma and addiction; the severity of these challenges varies based on our circumstances and environments. A Skid Row addict who was abused as a child is different from a donut-binger who got yelled at by his boss, but the neurological underpinnings of each habit are the same. It’s important to not label every clinical presentation as trauma or use addiction as an excuse for bad behavior. At the same time, it’s liberating and downright useful to know that we as individuals, parents, and clinicians can work with just about any issue through a lens of trauma and addiction. Your emotional baggage isn’t your fault—life happens, and you can heal! In fact, your own emotional health and the well-being of your children depend on it.