The PTSD, Trauma, Addiction Connection

By Richard H. Siegel, Ph.D. LMFT

young man at dusk on the beach

The majority of adults in treatment for addiction frequently report significant trauma or abuse in their past. Current research supports an undeniable relationship between trauma / abuse and addiction disorders. This is often the result of past issues creating persistent uncomfortable feelings. Though the individual may not be aware of what’s happening or why, they are looking for a way to help themselves cope. The addicted person initially attempts to self- medicate, be it with drugs, alcohol, sex, or food…any substance to ease the suffering.

Over time, however, these unwanted feelings fuel behaviors that can lead to self-sabotage, and at times personal disasters. In addition, the trance the psyche goes into while pursuing the substance creates blind spots to the disasters up ahead. To understand how to take control over uncontrollable feelings, first let’s address the dynamics of how trauma and abuse create the unwanted feelings that can lead to the need to self-medicate.

The psyche, in an attempt to protect itself from something terrible (emotionally or physically) that’s about to happen, freezes in time to prevent the event from occurring. (This is the reason why accident victims still see the car coming at them years later, as if it just happened yesterday.) So, while it’s the nature of reality that time moves forward, a part of self does not. This process is called dissociation and it occurs within the subconscious mind. The term dissociation describes a state of detachment from immediate surroundings or an even more severe detachment, a split of the ego from the psyche. When the psyche splits, we lose a part of self, an unconscious form of self-abandonment.

Dissociation is the process that accounts for the birth of the wounded child within. Frozen in time, this part of self is stuck in the past and very often has custody of the adult’s mind and physiology. Meaning that, thoughts, feelings and reactions that are self-destructive and frequently seem to come out of nowhere, actually come from an earlier self, still frozen in a moment of time just before something awful was about to happen. The ‘child within’ is born within the subconscious during moments of trauma, abuse, loss or rejection.

Frozen in time, it creates a disconnection within the self that leaves a trail of persistent uncomfortable feelings that fuel anxiety, depression and addiction. The child within, born as a survival strategy, becomes the source of an emotional and behavioral stronghold that’s hard to break free of. The defense mechanisms we developed as children to prevent pain later in life become an outdated and counter-productive coping mechanism we compulsively use as an adult. So how is it possible to heal the wounded child within through the conscious mind, when the phenomena of dissociation that created the split in the psyche occurred on a subconscious or unconscious level?

The answer lies in the following law of the universe: Whatever you resist, will persist. Whatever you feel, can heal.

For example, if I asked you to resist thinking about a pink elephant for the next thirty seconds, you would be hard pressed NOT to think about that pink elephant. With regard to feelings, if I resist my real feelings, be it fear, anger, shame, guilt or sadness, it becomes inevitable that at some point I will feel these emotions with even greater intensity down the road; albeit with less emotional control.

On the other hand, if I feel the persistent uncomfortable feelings I don’t want to feel…that is if I allow myself to feel the discomfort inside my mind and body…if I allow myself to be with (and not push away) the weight on my shoulder, the lump in my throat, the anxiety in my chest, the knot in my gut, the weakness in my legs, these unwanted feelings will go away. Why? Simply put, feelings don’t last when you allow yourself to feel them.

It’s when we push feelings away with drugs, numb them with drink, or push them down with food, that, that particular addiction runs our lives. Addiction is an unwillingness to be uncomfortable even as it perpetuates unwanted feelings we want to be rid of. Like a Chinese finger puzzle that only strengthens its grip when we struggle, resisting negative feelings tightens its emotional grip. The solution to the finger puzzle is to push into it, not pull away. So to be released from the grip of anger, guilt, fear, shame, sadness or rejection you can feel your feelings until they lose their grip on you. That is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable until the emotion loses its charge…and its hold on your mind and body.

This generates an emotional pain that comes from an unconscious source that is hard to endure. If happened at a time when the patient was a child, keep in mind that the child’s equation is always the same: It’s my fault. Hence, we come to accept the notion that we are unlovable. It’s very painful to feel unlovable. And, out of that belief, we then act and react to prove this to be true. Why?

Addiction has a double payoff. Drugs and alcohol can suspend bad feelings with stimulation; fill an emptiness, or calm anxiety. Over time, however, it can destroy relationships and careers. When you’re sober and realize the damage you’ve done, it proves that you’re right…you are defective, you are worthless. While the feelings of not being good enough are terrible, it feels good to be right. Being right is one of the strongest drives of all human emotions. Hard to imagine that feeling worthless has a payoff, but it does. Why? Because being right validates us, even when it’s at our own expense. Being wrong shames us…and shame hurts at the very core of our being. Ever notice how you, or other people, take great pains to avoid being wrong? How many arguments are simply about the desire to be right?

Another factor impeding our ability to stay with feelings long enough for them to lose their charge is fear. We are afraid of letting real feelings come to the surface. Most people will explain, justify, and rationalize their reasons for abusing drugs and alcohol because they’re afraid of feeling the pain inside. Some are just afraid to face their fears. As the great, respected philosopher, SpongeBob SquarePants once wisely said, “I don’t want to face my fears. I’m afraid of them!” So what is the answer? The answer still lies in the equation, the law of the universe that:

Whatever you resist will persist and whatever you feel can heal.

Just as addiction is an unwillingness to feel uncomfortable, sobriety is a willingness to be uncomfortable. In other words, to suffer. Suffering is something that most of us are not very good at, particularly on our own. In order to suffer in a way that heals and doesn’t cause more needless pain and anguish, you will need a guide. A mentor- an advisor who is expert in the art of exploring and healing the wounds of the soul. In other words, you need a therapist to guide you from pain to wholeness. A specialist who will heal the pain through the subconscious, get to the core of the feelings and permanently reduce or eliminate them.

There is an old story of a group therapy session where patients were asked to describe themselves as a tree. One woman said she was a mighty oak with lush leaves, rich soil, basking in the sunlight. When the therapist pointed out that her description sounded a little too pat and perfect, she broke down crying and said that she really felt like a burnt out stump, but was too afraid and ashamed to admit to herself or anyone else how she really felt. It was only when she acknowledged how she felt and explored what that stump looked like, that she noticed a new branch, new life growing out from the back of the bark. Again, resistance creates persistence and whatever you feel can heal.

In addition to working your program and attending meetings, your willingness to explore what’s really going on inside of you with someone who can expertly guide you through to the other side, to life, wholeness and restoration, is what will finally free you from addiction.

Dr. Siegel is a Psychotherapist in Deerfield Beach in private practice over 40 years. Dr. Siegel specializes in dissolving the persistent uncomfortable feelings that fuel depression, anxiety, phobias, addictions, PTSD, as well as Wounded Child Within issues. He does Motivation and Performance Coaching with sports professionals from the NFL, PGA, USPTA, NCAA Teams and University Coaches.He can be reached at 954-420-0755