Trauma and Addictions

Written by guest blogger, John Gray, a certified EMDR clinician and a Certified Addictions Counselor III. 

"Shame" by Libertinus Yomango

Addictions arrive out of a myriad of stimuli that tend to drive the continuation of substance abuse. This continuation of substance abuse/addiction tends to take on a life of it’s own. The territory where addiction has taken on a life of it’s own tends to be where most addiction treatment is focused. I have heard even recently those who have become clean state, “they told me once I was clean that everything would be better, and it’s not.”

The previous statement that all is not better once someone becomes clean is due to the consequences of the source or sources of the addiction. One source of addiction may be traumatic events that have occurred in ones life. These events may remain undetected sometimes even to the client after years and years of covering up the trauma(s) through addictive activities.

Addiction to substances can temporarily relieve the consequences of traumatic events; including but not limited to: stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, sense of powerlessness, and more. A relationship is developed between the substance and the individual that becomes often more consistent and dependable than other relationships in ones life.

There is great potential for secondary gains, other than the high of the substance, to contribute to the addiction taking on a life of it’s own separate from ameliorating consequences of traumatic events. The longer this addictive process continues the harder it may be to detect original traumas underlying the addictive behaviors as denial is often a factor influencing the process.

It is important in therapy for the clinician to take a thorough history to help find underlying traumas with addiction. A thorough history will often yield events in ones past indicative of trauma. Through this process the clinician can start seeing how present day patterns and reactions may be an indication that trauma is causing the client distress.

Addiction is common in those whom have experienced trauma often due to a lack of adequate social support, inadequate coping strategies and/or low skill level of the strategies. There may be a number of reasons for all of these variables connecting trauma and addiction. There may be family history of substance abuse creating gaps in the process of socialization where one would learn coping strategies. The combination of resolving the conflicts within created by the traumatic events and learning present day coping strategies work perfectly with the three-pronged approach (past, present, future) of EMDR.

EMDR addresses the underlying trauma to help resolve the past so that the client can become more present without the same kind of cravings and urges to use their preferred substance. When something happens to us that can’t be processed it can get stuck in the brain, nervous system – in a way that can cause distress. EMDR helps resolve this trauma so that the symptoms are relieved. Clients feel more centered, more at ease and more capable of handling difficult situations.

It is fulfilling to work in the area of trauma and addictions as once traumatic events are isolated, a treatment plan often involving EMDR is initiated, a plan around substance use reduction and/or eventual abstinence combined with present day coping strategies, progress becomes observable. I have witnessed the application of strategies in populations where I was informed clients would be heavily resistant to treatment and progress would be minimal, if at all.

In recent years I have had the honor of witnessing what clinicians perceive as resistance, deteriorates and transforms into a thirst for more growth and adjustment. Usually when strategies are applied appropriately with a strong therapeutic relationship centered on trust. As a result, higher self esteem ensues as self blame from the past gives way to healthy responsibility for the present and the future. Stronger self-control over previously overwhelming emotion creates space for healthier boundaries, and more fulfilling interpersonal relationships.

If you are interested in learning more about integrating EMDR with the treatment of addictions, John Grey and Barb Maiberger will be teaching “Addictions and EMDR

 Addictions and EMDR (Boulder, CO)



Image Source: Libertinus Yomango