THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TRAUMA, ADDICTION, & DBT
There is a mysterious connection between trauma and addiction. Addiction can be caused by many factors including genetics, emotional abandonment or neglect, or growing up in a very strict household where you don’t have a voice to express feelings. For a small child, growing up not being able to express feelings or not having your feelings validated and comforted, can be a traumatic experience. When trauma strikes, children utilize three options; fight, flight or freeze. Some children act out in school, others run away, and some freeze by going to their room and tuning out of reality into fantasy. Any response to trauma becomes a fertile field for addiction.
Drugs and alcohol, for the trauma survivor, can provide a way to quiet the mind and body which they can have control over; a sort of self-administered medication (Dayton 2011). Triggers occur when the addict re-experiences the shaming thoughts he thinks about himself from past trauma and uses alcohol and drugs to protect him from further emotional harm. He doesn’t have to think about the emotional pain when he is drunk or high. The more these substances or behaviors are used to quiet and calm unwanted feelings and sensations, the more dependent we become on them and the more convinced we become that we cannot calm down or feel ok without them (Dayton 2011).
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is all about training the mind to lessen emotional suffering.
On one hand DBT believes a person is doing the best they can do given their circumstances and they are accepted unconditionally. On the other hand, there is always room for change and growth. With consistent practice of the DBT skills , we learn to relate to our emotions and struggles in a different, more healthy way, learning to cope with life’s ups and downs which will inevitably occur.
DBT does not focus on right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, weak vs. strong. Instead it’s about creating a life worth living, focusing on the results we want out of life. We practice being non-judgmental of others and learn to radically accept our past, ourselves and others, realizing we cannot change the past or predict the future.
According to Marsha Linehan (1993), developer of DBT, numerous scientific studies have found that DBT is effective in helping people manage their emotions, decrease problem behaviors including substance abuse, suicide attempts, self-harm and eating disorders.
Linehan hypothesized (Koerner, 2012) that three factors contribute to a person’s vulnerability. First, people prone to emotion dysregulation react with high sensitivity. Second, they experience and express emotions intensely. Third, they experience a long-lasting arousal which is more difficult to tolerate.
People suffering from trauma and addiction are more prone to experiencing these fluctuating levels of emotions. People with addiction tend to abuse substances when they experience any form of negative emotion. Some use a positive feeling of euphoria or good news as a rationalization for continuing their substance use. Trauma survivors experience a heightened level of emotional dysregulation including startle response, trauma bonding and trauma repetition. DBT skills help a person regulate emotions, tolerate stress, live a more balanced life and reach their goals through more effective interpersonal relationships.
Life will be more meaningful when you identify the character traits you want to change, how willing you are to change your emotional state and what you want most out of life (dreams, goals, values, family, career, etc.).