Or is There Another Problem…?
Do you worry that you have a problem with an addiction? Drink too much? Smoke pot every day? Unable to bypass the exit to Blackhawk? Spend your whole vacation in the gift shop? Even if the answer is yes to any of these questions, does that mean you’re addicted?
Find Out Where You Stand
Here’s a simple test you can take to see whether you’re addicted, or just overdoing it:
- Does the behavior improve your mood, make you feel better?
- Is your behavior out of your control? Have you tried to stop without success?
- Is your behavior causing harm to you or to anyone else?
If you answered yes to these questions, you probably have an addiction to a substance or behavior and it’s negatively impacting your life. So what does that mean? Before you stop reading for fear of this turning into a 12-step meeting, let’s examine the genesis of addiction.
In my work as a therapist trained in addictions, I have never met someone with an addiction who didn’t have a reason for it. What do I mean? To understand the whys of many addictions, we need to review the results of a now-famous study conducted by Kaiser Permanente in the 1990s (see http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html to learn more).
The ACE Study
Kaiser asked over 17,000 patients whether they had experienced any of 10 adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) before the age of 18. These included emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; witnessing domestic violence; parental marital discord; and living with substance abusing, mentally ill, or criminal household members.
Although the study (and many subsequent ones) did not show a direct causal link, it showed a very high correlation between addiction (and other health issues) and ACEs experienced – the more ACEs, the higher the likelihood of addiction and adverse health in later years.
Why ACEs are Important
In the time since the ACE study, advances in neuroscience (the study of the brain and nervous system) have helped us understand what happens to our nervous systems when we experience ACEs and other traumatic events. To protect us from the perceived danger, our brains release neurotransmitters designed to help us survive. This system works really well to save us in the moment. However, if the event is not resolved – that is, we don’t find safety afterwards or can’t make sense of what happened – these events leave us “out of whack.” That is because the nervous system hasn’t been able to recover. This is particularly true if trauma was ongoing over a period of time.
As a consequence, we may feel “out of whack” some or most of the time and we may try to change that feeling. Some people are able to channel this drive into creative and industrious pursuits; others turn to exercise, yoga, and other physical activity; and some turn to substances or behaviors that help numb the feeling.
When there is underlying trauma, treating the addiction alone is not sufficient to solve the problem. This is why you may have seen in others or experienced yourself the problem of trading one addiction for another. This is not due to an “addictive personality” – all personality types can become addicted; it’s because the underlying brain function has never recovered to a balanced state.
It is critical to treat BOTH addiction and trauma simultaneously, as one feeds the other. This is accomplished through group and individual therapy designed specifically for this purpose. The good news: trauma and addiction treatment have advanced substantially in recent years and we have many good options to help reduce or even eliminate symptoms.
Curious to know more? Contact me at alex [at] labyrinth-institute [dot] com. I’d be happy to offer a free 20-minute consultation. I also offer a therapy group, Seeking Safety, that addresses the symptoms of trauma.
Alexandria Hayes is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in the treatment of trauma. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-588-3639.