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Trauma And The Body - The Physiological Effects Of Trauma In Addiction

Understanding the Link Between Trauma and Addiction

What Is Trauma? Trauma occurs when a person experiences a level of stress that they’re unable to process. And whether the experience occurs in childhood, teenage years, or adulthood, trauma eventually expresses itself in the body.

At first, a person dealing with a traumatic event may feel a lot of different emotions. Extreme negative feelings may be the first to kick in—anger, fear, sadness, guilt, embarrassment, or even denial. In some cases, a person might even experience emotional numbness, which is the inability to feel pleasure or pain.

But however it affects the emotions, physiological effects eventually begin to manifest.

Environmental stress and traumatic events play a significant role in addiction. They’re not the only factor that plays into someone’s risk of addictive behavior, but they are a very common one.

Personality temperaments and genetic markers can also play a role. But overall, stress and trauma are repeatedly observed in those who struggle with addiction.

In a study in the Journal of Restorative Medicine specifically points to childhood trauma and abuse as one of the key markers that make someone susceptible to addiction. It says, for example, that “the brains of mistreated children have been shown to be smaller than normal by 7 or 8% with below-average volume in multiple brain areas.”

If a child grows up with below-average brain development, this often results in underdevelopment in the following:

  • Impulse-control in the prefrontal cortex
  • Communication between the two sides of the brain
  • Limbic and emotional structures of the brain

Each of these deficiencies greatly increases the risk of falling into addictive behaviors, making a strong link between trauma and addiction.

What Are The Physiological Effects Of Trauma?

Physical manifestations of trauma are important to understand and recognize. It’s beneficial to the person involved, but also to healthcare providers and treatment professionals. Once trauma is identified as the main cause of an addict’s physical symptoms, treatment centers can prevent misdiagnosis and give suitable advice for long-term recovery.

Four of the main physiological effects of trauma include:

Panic Attacks

For victims of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma, panic attacks may feel a normal part of life. But they are actually the result of intense fear and anxiety. They can be triggered when a person is suddenly reminded about a trauma in the past, either internally or externally. During a panic attack, you may experience uncontrollable physical symptoms such as:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dizziness and/or nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Increased heart rate
  • Fainting due to loss of blood flow
  • Feeling numb and dissociated

In extreme cases, you might experience hyperventilation—a faster and deeper breathing pattern that makes you feel out of breath due to the decrease of carbon dioxide (CO2) in your blood.

Disrupted Brain function

As discussed above, a traumatic event—especially in childhood or adolescence—can cause deficiencies or underdevelopment in a person’s brain. The amygdala, for example, detects and processes threats or danger in our environment. If this part of your brain has been damaged or impaired, you likely experience a misguided sense of risky environments or actions. This might lead to substance abuse and addiction patterns despite destructive consequences.

This can be observed in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On the one hand, a person trying to manage prolonged traumatic stress may find themselves in dangerous situations and not knowing exactly how to respond.

On the other hand, being in constant fear of threats causes a person to be hyper-vigilant. In other words, they’re always on guard and ready to take action even if the danger is only perceived and not actual. Hyper-vigilance can also cause disrupted sleeping patterns such as insomnia.

Digestive Issues

As you might know, the digestive system is intimately connected with brain function. This is why extreme emotions and stress can affect gut function, health, and development. In minor cases, you might experience gastrointestinal discomfort or pain when you feel severe stress, anxiety, or fear.

In more severe cases, stress and trauma can threaten the brain-gut connection. Having this disconnect might look like bloating and nausea, or even gut inflammation and food allergies. High stress can also affect the way food travels in the body and result in problems like diarrhea, constipation, painful muscle spasms, and even chronic bowel issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The gut biome is the second brain of the body, so if the brain is impaired, it’s likely that the gastrointestinal system is too.

Chronic Pain

One of the most intense effects of trauma—and one that drives many to substance abuse—is continuing pain that is often unexplainable. This is often known as chronic pain. Sometimes these pains originate in past injuries that don’t completely heal. Other times, the pains are caused by injuries from past abuse and trauma memory, which can all lead to prolonged pain and suffering.

In any case, the nervous system can undergo central sensitization or hypersensitivity to pain. In other words, even if the injury has healed entirely and the pain should no longer be felt, the nervous system remains reactive. This can result in a lower pain tolerance and chronic discomfort.

Coping with Trauma and Addiction

The capacity to cope with the physical and emotional effects of trauma varies from person to person. But no matter where you are, resources like proper support from loved ones and therapeutic counseling from treatment centers are a good combination to start your healing journey.

The therapy known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), for example, has been shown to address “trauma using a combination of top-down (cognitive) and bottom-up (affect/body) processing.”

Though total healing from trauma is possible, many people feel exhausted by what they have to go through every day to continue that healing process. But you’re not alone. To learn more about how to start your healing journey at Impact Recovery, get in touch with a member of our team here.