Addiction and the Impact of Trauma

addiction impact of traumaIf you’ve read other blog posts I’ve written, you’ve probably learned by now that I think that people use substance and sexual behaviors in problematic ways because use these addictive behaviors often solve emotional problems. They help people feel better, or, as is often the case, to feel less.


For instance, problematic addictive behaviors can give people a break from their relentless, shame-driven inner critic. They can help chronically depressed people feel more expansive and alive. They can help people detach from feelings that are too painful to experience. The list goes on and on.


People use substances and sexual behaviors such as pornography and masturbation to address whatever personal vulnerabilities they have when nothing else seems to work. Often, they’ve learned through early direct exposure or modeling that porn, substances, or another addictive behavior can help.


But what causes these personal vulnerabilities in the first place (and we’ve all got issues, OK?)? Trauma.


Defining Trauma

I’ve written elsewhere about trauma in more detail, but suffice it to say here that trauma is any experience that causes emotional injury.


I often explain to clients that when we think or hear about trauma, we think of abuse, hurricanes, car accidents, sexual assault, that sort of thing. This kind of trauma is often highly impactful and is usually short-term.


Another more subtle kind of trauma is relational trauma, which often we don’t think about because it feels “normal” to us. But if, for example, your parents were not affectionate with you and emotionally disengaged, or if they were too emotionally involved with you and emotionally enmeshed, over time this can be just as traumatic as a car accident or an assault.


As a (very) general rule of thumb, the more significant the trauma, the greater the impact on the individual, the more difficulty the individual may experience in dealing the feelings that resulted from the trauma.


Re-examining Childhood Experiences for Healing

These traumatic experiences powerfully shape our experience of ourselves and the world. Often in recovery, it is critical to examine these beliefs and how they came to be from the wounds of our past.


This process is important to helping us learn to put space in between how we experience the world, our feelings in response to our experiences, and the urge to act on these feelings by engaging in problematic behaviors or substance use.


Often, this is a steep learning curve. Those who have experienced a great deal of trauma of any kind need help with rediscovering and befriending feelings that have previously been too overwhelming for them to be in awareness.


Awakening those parts of ourselves that have been silently and secretly cordoned off from our consciousness is critical to healing.


Trauma Re-enactments: Repeating the Past in the Present

Unless we examine the beliefs that shape our experiences in the world, those that so strongly influence our emotional lives and relationships, we may unwittingly recreate past traumas in the present.


What does this mean? We can unconsciously repeat old patterns of relating in ways that are reminiscent of early, painful situations and relationships. Freud called this “repetition compulsion,” and it can lead to addictive relationships.


(Yes, it’s possible to be addicted to a person. But that’s another blog post.)


A common example of this might be the woman who keeps getting into relationships with different partners, all of whom are critical and controlling. Some investigation into this pattern often reveals that one of her parents shared these qualities.


It can also happen that frightening or shameful sexual experiences that occurred when one was a child can reemerge later as unusual sexual interests. For example, the person who was sexually abused can reenact this trauma by in their sexual play or by abusing others. This is but a handful of many possibilities.


We unconsciously repeat these patterns because they’re familiar and we’re also trying to heal from them. We may repeat experiences we are trying to resolve or master.


Why does this happen? It’s hard to say, though I tend to think that we unconsciously repeat these patterns because they’re familiar and we’re also trying to heal from them. We may repeat experiences we are trying to resolve or master.


Undoing the Impact of Trauma

Clearly, if we are going to overcome addiction, we need to consciously and intentionally engage our past traumas. That is, we need to get past our past in order to live in the present without using addictive behaviors and substances in ways that create problems.


Because the impact of trauma leaves one reeling emotionally, it’s important to find new ways of managing difficult feelings in a safe relationship in which you can feel understood. Sharing our selves with another we can feel safe with is powerfully healing.


Often, though, trauma requires other forms of treatment that can be of immense help. EMDR, neurofeedback, and somatic experiencing are just some of the many possible avenues for healing trauma and should be done within the context of a therapeutic relationship that you trust.


If you’re looking for healing and for such a relationship, I’d love to connect. Let’s talk about what’s on your mind and see how therapy can undo the impact of the trauma in your life.


Live near Ventura, Camarillo, or Oxnard, CA?

I’d love to connect.

Contact me today to get started.


Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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