Contributed by: Sandra Lehmann, MC, LPC, CEAT is a Trauma Resolution Counselor at The Meadows, an inpatient mental health facility specializing in addiction and trauma.
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”- Edgar Allan Poe 
The experience of trauma is everywhere in America, 75% of Americans have experienced a traumatic event and 6.7% of those individuals have had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime .
A single event trauma such as a car accident or surgery is difficult to work through, but long-standing childhood trauma tends to be more problematic. Children who experience trauma with caregivers continue to come into contact with the very people that are supposed to provide safety and this leaves them in a constant state of fear.
This constant state of fear is one of the major ingredients for the development of PTSD [3,4]. Research shows that traumatic events during childhood have been connected with issues later in life  such as PTSD, major depressive disorder [6,7] and alcohol use disorder [8,9].
People Are Often Unaware of the Effect of Trauma
The relationship between substance use disorders and PTSD is well established [10, 11] but often people with substance abuse issues are unaware of related trauma. Research supports that unaddressed PTSD or trauma is a factor for relapse with substance use disorders  though getting to the core of these traumatic memories is difficult.
Talk therapy and 12-step groups can be helpful in treating addiction, but often individuals that have worked their program find themselves in relapse blaming themselves for not being good enough to stick with their recovery.
Good news is that there is hope for trauma treatment as it relates to alcohol, drug use and relapse, with treatments such as Somatic Experiencing, EMDR and expressive arts therapy.
The Role of Somatic Experiencing
One therapy used for healing trauma is Somatic Experiencing based on work by Peter Levine  who has studied animals and how they process through traumatic events in nature. Animals in the wild are able to literally shake off a traumatic event and return to a state of regulation.
Continuing to Live in the Past
Unlike most animals, human beings have difficulty returning to a state of regulation because we think deeply about the event in the newest part of the brain the neo-cortex. This thinking actually blocks the older parts of the brain from processing through the event.
In other words, we continue to live in the past, replaying what happened and planning how to avoid potential threats in the future.
Finding “Regulation” in Drugs or Alcohol
With this constant focus on past and future we lose our ability to live in the present moment. At the same time our nervous system wants to return to a state of regulation and we find ways such as using alcohol and drugs to induce what feels like a regulated state.
Somatic Experiencing allows individuals to experience their body in the here and now so they can release trauma and return to a state of being curious, open and connected with others without drinking or using substances.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Another therapy that has been researched and validated for the treatment of PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) [14, 15]. In this therapy both sides of the brain are stimulated back and forth through eye movements, touch and/or sound while an individual focuses on a traumatic memory.
This stimulation of both sides of the brain while focusing on a memory allows the individual to safely process through the memory so it gets resolved. After completing EMDR many individuals state that they remember what happened but that it is no longer disturbing.
EMDR has been used successfully with substance use disorder [12, 16, 17, 18] and can also help an individual with negative beliefs they learned about themselves through trauma. This in turn may assist with confidence in future situations such as preventing relapse.
Art therapy has also been used for treating trauma and addiction. People record life experiences both as a story and through the five senses . Art is a natural all sensory mode of expression because it involves touch, smell, and other senses within the experience of creating artwork.
Traumatic memories are often difficult to share and art is a gentle way to recall memories that are too terrifying to speak about.
Additionally, using expressive arts interventions to work with somatic symptoms and somatic therapies may help a client move from patterns of being stuck in the symptoms of trauma to completion of these cycles.
The Validation of Addiction Therapy
It is an exciting time in the treatment of addiction and trauma as new therapies are being discovered and older therapies are being validated. As technology increases we are able to look at the brain and understand the causes and effects of addictive behaviors and traumatic events.
As the field of psychology and counseling matures, and this research unfolds, we have better ways to normalize addiction and trauma rather than label and criticize those struggling with these issues. This research and understanding is helping to give hope where once there was blame and shame.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
What advice would you share with others based on your own experience with trauma and addictive behaviors?
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- Ironson, G. I., Freund, B., Strauss, J. L., & Williams, J. (2002). Comparison of two treatments for traumatic stress: A community-based study of EMDR and prolonged exposure. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58,1071–1089.
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Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 7th, 2015
Published on AddictionHope.com