Trauma, PTSD & Addiction

  • By Aaron Mills
  • 15 Dec, 2017

Trauma plays a key factor in addiction and mental health in general

People who have experienced trauma are four times more likely to become alcoholics. They are four times more likely to inject drugs, and three times more likely to be on anti-depressant drugs. These numbers are alarming, but even more alarming is that survivors of trauma are 15 times more likely to commit suicide.

Trauma impacts a person’s life in many ways. Survivors are three times more likely to have serious problems at work, and to experience depression.

Decreased activity in the brain's prefrontal lobe leads to less logical behavior and more impulsive behavior. Executive functioning becomes disengaged, adrenal glands release cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

This has a physical manifestation as continued stress leads to weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, poor concentration, depression, infertility, and cold intolerance.

The digestive tract slows down and the heart and lungs are impacted because of the increased need for oxygen in a fight or flight situation.
People often wonder how someone can become a prisoner to repeated trauma. Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness experiment gives us an idea of how this has a longterm frontal lobe effect, essentially changing one's brain chemistry and keeping them from using logic to escape their circumstances.

In this experiment, painful shocks were given to trapped dogs. When the cages were opened the dogs just whimpered, but did not escape. When new dogs (with working frontal lobes not impacted by trauma) were put into the cages, they escaped immediately.

This is a very sick experiment by any standard, but it gives us a clear window into the kinds of impulsive and non-logical component of trauma and its effects on behavior.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Addiction is not a disease. It’s a choice.” We expect people to be rational actors in their own lives and in the choices they make.

But in the case of people who have experienced trauma, logic is suppressed by the body's self-defense and survival mechanisms.

Longterm stressful situations create a longterm decrease in frontal lobe activity. This produces havoc on the body and health in general.

When people experience trauma, it can create a compulsion to repeat the trauma. This seems very strange at face value because it is not logical, but it is simple brain chemistry. The strong emotions shut down the frontal lobe and the body produces morphine-like substances to face the challenge. The body's own drug factory goes into play.

The brain remembers these strong chemicals, and seeks to return to this source of pain and pleasure. The anxiety a person is feeling can be resolved by returning to the trauma.

In addiction we see this kind of behavior on a regular basis. People want to create drama and turmoil in their lives, and the presence of the chaos puts their bodies into drug manufacturing mode and gets them high.

In essence, the brain can become habituated or addicted to trauma.

The limbic system sees increased activity, which leads to more emotion and anxiety. This puts a person in a situation where emotions trump reason. Logic is out the window.
To understand this better let’s look at the way the human brain is divided up. The frontal lobe, called the cerebral cortex, is the thinking part of our brain. Logic, reasoning, judgment, motivation, perception, memory and learning are centered here.

The cerebellum, which sits at the bottom of the brain, governs motor control, heartbeat, breathing, and all those other physical functions of our bodies.

The limbic system governs the reactionary parts of our brains. This is where emotions, pleasure, reward, pain, and fight or flight systems originate.

Brain scans of PTSD patients show increased activity in the limbic area of the brain.

The other factor at play is a decrease in serotonin, the chemical that suppresses fear and anxiety. When those levels are decreased, people are more likely to be on edge. Lower serotonin levels also lead people to be followers rather than a leader in social situations. Social status can be tied directly to serotonin levels in monkeys.

The first time a traumatic experience happens, it changes how our brain reacts to certain conditions. The first time we are in a car accident it makes us hyper-sensitive to the possibility of future accidents. Even the slightest evidence produces a full chemical response in future situations.

When ordinary people are triggered by a threat and face a fight or flight response, they return to normal relatively soon. People who are traumatized do not return to normal quickly, and could have elevated stress hormones, causing memory issues, sleeping disorders, and long-term healthy problems.

Complex trauma can lead to depersonalization, feeling emotionally numb, and a reorganization of how the world is perceived. People who have experienced trauma often look at the world differently.

Once a person has experienced trauma such as rape, physical abuse, or a violent situation, they can be stuck in a world where there are two types of people. Those who understand, and those who don’t.

Often this can lead a survivor to believe that those who have not experienced trauma cannot be trusted.

To understand addiction, it is helpful to understand trauma. Trauma is often a precondition to addiction. Trauma is something someone can actually become addicted to. Trauma is something people in addiction often face even after they become addicts. Trauma is often passed on to loved ones because of addiction, and it can become a part of the cycle of addiction in families.

Twelve million women in our society have been raped, and over half of them were under the age of 15. Three million children have been the victims of child abuse or neglect. Soldiers returning from wars have increased risk of suicide, alcoholism, and addiction to prescription drugs.

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By Jenny Hunt 22 Jan, 2018
So often I talk about the big blessings of sobriety – great job, great life, great friends, great relationship with my family, and that feeling of inner peace and contentment. Sometimes I forget about the little things. Little things that were so out of my reach in addiction, I didn’t even believe they were possible. So here are some of those things, in no particular order:
By Jodi MacNeal 22 Jan, 2018
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By Jodi MacNeal 20 Jan, 2018
Two days after the 1986 NBA draft, No. 2 pick Len Bias was dead of cardiac arrest after of a cocaine overdose.

Len Bias: Best player Maryland had ever seen (maybe the best Maryland player ever, depending on how you feel about Juan Dixon). The future of the Celtics. About to sign an endorsement deal with Reebok. Life was perfect.

Cocaine killed that. He was 22.

Bias hadn’t left home to play college ball; he was a home-grown talent who came up just outside D.C. and played ball in Maryland so he wouldn’t have to leave his family. He had a future as wide-open and promising as any kid, ever. Already a star, a freak of athletic power and poise, he might have changed the world of professional basketball. He’d fueled the dreams of a thousand city kids who wanted to play like him, be him. He swaggered, Len Bias did. His opponents couldn’t fathom him: “He’d jump and his knees would be in my teeth.” He dunked on guys, whether he needed to or not, just because he could. Len Bias could fly.

And then cocaine ended him.

Here’s how it went down: Bias and three buddies were snorting coke in a dorm room, suite 1103 in Washington Hall. Bias did a line, tried to get up, fell back on the bad and lapsed into seizure. One guy held his legs. Another one put the handle of a pair of scissors in Bias’s mouth, to keep him from biting his own tongue. The third somehow called 911 and mumbled, over and over, that his friend was in trouble. Kept saying his friend’s name, even when the emergency operator told him it didn’t matter. “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die.”

But drugs don’t differentiate. Substance use, abuse and addiction have attacked athletes across the spectrum of sport.

By Emily Johanson 18 Jan, 2018
If a stranger in a gas station parking lot asks this question, it’s easy to assume what’s going on.

“Nope. I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, thanks.”

After working a full day, then sitting through a 4-hour class, the last thing I was in the mood for was to be pestered by a drug dealer at 11 p.m. All I wanted was to get my Marlboro Smooths and go home.

As I got into my car, annoyed by the fact that I had to start it with pliers (broken car keys aren’t worth the $200 replacement), something told me to stop.

I reversed, and rolled down my window next to the mysterious black Toyota.

“What are you selling?”

He told me that he had whatever I needed: Weed, percs, Xanax, heroin, flakka, oxies, you name it.

Addiction was too close to home to keep from speaking up.

“Do you realize what you’re doing? Do you realize what you’re selling?”

He was silent for a minute, staring at me. After what felt like eternity looking into this man’s eyes, I decided that I had the freedom to continue. What else do I say? I began to tell some of my story. I served him my heart on a silver platter.

“You don’t have to do this. There are other ways to make money.”

He looked down in shame. I encouraged him to take a few of my Desert Rose company cards in case he knew someone who needed help. He got out of his car, took the cards from my hand and stood there, shaking his head. With tears in his eyes, he said, “They’re for me.”

I sat there with this guy for 45 minutes while he poured out his heart and story.

Gary told me he’s 49 years old, works on classic cars by day, and sells drugs by night for extra money. He has a beautiful son who he loves with all of his heart. When he removed his hat and pulled his shirt collar aside, his bald head and IV port revealed his personal nightmare: Gary was also fighting stage four colon cancer. He made it clear that his cancer was not an excuse for his behavior, or for his personal drug use.

I was caught off guard when Gary squeezed my hands and began to pray. He prayed against forces of the enemy. He prayed for blessing over my life. He prayed protection and favor over his son. For himself, he prayed for wisdom and strength to do the next right thing.

As he walked back to his car, he turned around and said, “It’s time for me to go home and kiss my son good night. Thank you for reminding me of what’s important.”

Every day, we pass people by, like they’re just part of the scenery. We have absolutely no clue what kind of story, beauty, and pain lie beneath the surface.

If you're in pain, please know we understand and we're ready to help. Call us today at (844) 338-5587. 
By Jodi MacNeal 18 Jan, 2018
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By Jodi MacNeal 16 Jan, 2018
How do you carry your recovery into the world? Do you pin it on daily, like a badge of honor? Do you bring it out just for special occasions, or do you keep it well and truly hidden?

Last month, a longtime acquaintance told me (in slightly hushed tones) that he’s in recovery. 

I was glad that I didn't hear any traces of shame or guilt in his voice. His long-ago drinking and drug use? It’s just the life he was living at the time. He’s not afraid of being judged, or of any stigma attached to substance abuse and recovery.

It’s just that he’s moved on. He’s private about being in recovery and it’s not particularly relevant to the life he's achieved – husband, father, business owner, artist, athlete. He sponsors people, even quietly mentions that he’s a former addict when he thinks it might help somebody. He probably won’t bring it up with his kids unless they ask him point-blank, once they’re old enough to understand. It’s a crazy-healthy way to be.

For some people, declaring their recovery to the world is a part of staying clean. It gives them a sense of identity and a tribe – their own #MeToo community. They’re vocal, active, engaged. These are the folks going into the prisons, leading the meetings, talking to groups of high school students and their parents. Walking though recovery means talking about recovery. They have no secrets.

Then there are others who’ve closed and locked the door. The subject is not open for discussion, and if you happen to touch upon it, everybody’s going to feel a little uncomfortable for a while. This happened to me not long ago, with a pastor friend. Trying to find a way to refuse a glass of prosecco I offered, he made a joke about being an overachiever in everything – including, at one time, drinking. He made his point in a way that made it clear that was all he was planning to say on the matter. His right, and I respect that.

It seems to me that there are a million ways to navigate long-term recovery. What’s your way?
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