The Relationship Between Addiction and Trauma

Tough times never last, but tough people do.

-Robert H. Schuller-

For many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the way that they cope with their overactive limbic system, pleasure seeking part of the brain, is through unhealthy behaviors that often lead to addiction. In order to silence the triggers, the traumatic memories, and the panic of living in a body that has been traumatized, some survivors turn to things like alcohol, drugs, or food as a way to self-medicate.

Those with addiction issues will tell you that a part of them wants to stop the behavior, but another part of them doesn’t and even seems to drive them back to the behavior again and again. This is because of how the brain works.

When something feels good or enjoyable to the limbic system, dopamine is released. As noted in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, “Certain activities can release up to 10 times the amount of dopamine than natural rewards do, and they do it more quickly and more reliably. Our brains do not have an easy way to withstand the onslaught.”

Addictions are most prevalent when someone is experiencing any part of BLASTT because that is when the limbic system, or pleasure seeking part of our brain, is most active. BLASTT is an acronym that stands for:

Bored

Lonely

Angry

Stressed

Tired

Trauma Trigger

When any of these are occurring, instead of dealing with the core issue – the unresolved trauma experienced as a child – the addiction is used to cope, then becoming an issue of its own.

One survivor, we’ll call her Lisa, was addicted to food as a way to self-soothe. When emotions of any kind crept in, she would go to the cupboard for food, usually something sugary and sweet. The food helped her block out unwanted feelings, emotions, thoughts, and memories. One night as she looked in the mirror, she felt disgusted by her reflection. She felt overweight and out of shape. One voice in her mind berated her looks, but another one (the limbic system) told her to go and get a candy bar, that it would make her feel better.

It was the first time she’d realized the full impact her limbic system was having on her everyday life. She knew she needed help, both for her trauma and for the addiction she’d turned to in order to cope with her trauma.

Dr. Lisa Najavits said, “All major research indicates that when people are given the tools to cope with trauma and addiction, they improve, often in quite short time-frames.”

The 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope are each beneficial to helping you heal from your trauma as well as combat your addictions.