What is the relationship between trauma and addiction? We’ve seen statistics from the Adverse Childhood Experiences studies showing dramatic correlations between childhood trauma and any number adult health problems. We know the rates of traumatic experiences among addicts is higher than the population at large. But what is the relationship?
In the 1992 presidential campaign, the catchphrase that likely propelled Bill Clinton into the White House was “it’s the economy stupid”. The phrase was intended to remind voters that no matter what else was being discussed, the economy was the central issue of the day. Whatever else was going on in the country, the debate on economy drove the election.
Today, we know more about brain development and function that at any time in recorded history. We have technology that maps brain function at levels unimagined a few decades ago. We understand more about the neurobiology of addiction than ever. Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn’t seem to have helped much.
With all the medical and scientific advances, why aren’t we winning “the war on drugs”? We have detailed knowledge about how drugs work in the brain. We’ve even developed drugs to help counteract or block those effects. And still, the problem continues…to grow and evolve…faster and more creatively than our best efforts to curb it.
The amount of time, energy and money spent to combat addiction, however insufficient, is still at record levels. So what are we missing? Why haven’t the dramatic advances in science and neurobiology resulted in correspondingly dramatic advances in treatment and recovery?
Could the research on drugs and neurobiology have led us astray? Have we followed the wrong trail? Have we been focusing on the symptoms instead of the problem? We almost certainly have. What if the mechanisms of action of addictive substances are inconsequential in the overall scheme of things? What if the key to prevention and recovery is as straightforward as identifying and healing trauma?
I’m beginning to believe that the secret to winning the fight against addiction is not in knowing more about the effects of drugs but in understanding and repairing the effects of trauma. Trauma can be defined many ways, many more than I can discuss here. I recently wrote a post on that very topic called What is Trauma?
It’s important to note that trauma doesn’t always result in PTSD. Adverse childhood experiences don’t always result in addiction. In fact, trauma can manifest in a person’s life in as many variations as the traumatic experiences themselves. In the book “When The Body Says No”, Dr. Gabor Matè investigates the connection between mind and body in diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and others.
While many children experience trauma from abuse, adults often experience trauma from loss. Loss of a child, a partner or a job are just a few that come to mind. Too often, there is a resulting loss of trust, faith or safety that marks a transition in from relatively normal functioning to any number of physical and behavioral problems.
Trauma experienced in childhood is certainly the most heartbreaking and likely the most devastating type of trauma. As stated before, addiction is only one of the possible responses to adverse childhood experiences. Those with serious psychiatric problems (including personality disorders) report childhood trauma at higher rates than the rest of the population.
Below is a presentation discussing trauma and addiction by Liz Mullinar recorded in Newcastle, Australia in 2011. While I would argue that adult trauma also contributes to problems with addiction, the research on the impact of childhood trauma is overwhelming. As always, I look forward to hearing from others on this and any related topics.