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.