How Does Trauma Cause Addiction?

It wasn’t until recently that I started exploring the trauma in my own life and researching the connection between addiction and trauma. It’s a much more commonly linked than we think. Dr. Gabor Maté, retired physician, addiction specialist and best-selling author, has dedicated his life to writing about the connection between childhood trauma and addiction. In fact, he believes all addictions – alcohol and drugs, sex, gambling, or shopping, are attempts at regulating our internal emotional states. Addiction is a way to bypass discomfort and Dr. Maté says this discomfort almost always begins in childhood. He doesn’t believe every traumatized person becomes addicted, but he does believe that every person who becomes addicted has experienced trauma.

First, we need to define trauma. I’ve learned that trauma isn’t what many people think it is. It doesn’t have to be a catastrophic event like a car accident or physical abuse, although these events do count. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event. Following the event, shock and denial are normal, but later there are long term reactions such as flashbacks, strained relationships, unpredictable emotions, and physical symptoms like headaches and nausea. Managing these long term reactions can become difficult.

Dr. Maté says the manifestation of addiction is alienation or separation from ourselves caused by this trauma. He cites that the word trauma is actually a Greek word that means “wounding.” When we’re wounded scar tissue forms and this tissue is less resilient than the tissue it replaces. In the same way, Maté says when psychological trauma happens our psyche becomes more rigid and less flexible. This is what he believes causes people to become more rigid in their responses to life, to relationships, to ourselves and to stimuli.

But how does trauma, that sometimes occurs in childhood, later express itself in external behaviors like drinking alcohol or taking drugs? Maté says the mind and body cannot be separated. Our psyche and physiology go hand in hand and they are designed for our survival.  Whatever happens to your psyche, affects you on a psychological level. Emotions have the power to effect change in your nervous system, your gut, your cardiovascular system, in your blood vessels and in your muscles. When our psyches are under chronic stress our psychological system is under the same amount of stress. Our bodies adjust to the stress and this can be expressed as an addiction.

Maté defines addiction as a complex psychophysiological process manifested in any behavior a person finds temporary pleasure or relief in and therefore craves, but they are unable to give up despite its negative consequences. It is craving pleasure and relief in the short term even though it may result in harm in the long term.

Knowing that trauma can cause addiction and understanding this, does not necessarily lead to healing. As we often hear in the recovery world and a belief which Dr. Maté fully supports, in order to find healing, we must find connection. This means we cannot use these temporary harmful behaviors to make us feel whole. Becoming whole again is a process and a journey in recovery.

Recovery is a process of not running away from ourselves. It’s the process of self-awareness, learning who are without substances, and developing genuine connections based on learning about what you want, what you prefer, and how you feel without ignoring your true feelings, as well as considering the feelings of others.

Recovery researcher William White says that the most powerful catalyst for healing trauma is the experience of mutual identification and support within a community of recovering people. Healthy interdependence and mutual accountability is a powerful thing. Just because we’ve had trauma in our lives or become addicted doesn’t mean it has to negatively impact our lives forever. We have the power to own our stories, share our pain, and learn new ways to cope and take back our lives.

We don’t always have the power to control what happens to us, but we can control what we do with our own circumstances. Becoming aware of our past is the first step. Doing the work and sitting in the pain will get us where we want to go, out on the other side. Trauma can be devastating, but you are not alone. Naming what has happened to us, acknowledging the past, and taking steps to move forward towards a brighter and more productive future is the only way we can ensure we will live healthy lives. Learning new ways of living is possible. Learning new ways of coping is possible. Believing you are worth it and connecting with others who want to get there as well is a sure way to make it happen.

Kelly Fitzgerald Junco

Kelly Fitzgerald Junco is a sober writer based in Southwest Florida who is best known for her personal blog The Adventures of a Sober Señorita. Her work has been published across the web including sites like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Ravishly, SheKnows, Elite Daily, The Fix, Brit + Co, Addiction Unscripted and AfterPartyMagazine. She is currently writing a memoir.