How can a traumatic event or set of events from earlier in life create a present desire to scarf down cookies, drink wine every night, or partake in other obsessive behaviors? The answer lies in how our brains and bodies record experience and respond to life situations.
Researchers and addiction specialists are finding more and more evidence that addiction is quite often linked to psychological and emotional trauma from earlier in life. The science of neuroplasticity tells us that our brains are not static, unchanging organs, as was once believed. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing experiences. This dynamic process allows us to learn from – and adapt to – different events in our lives.
When we experience traumatic events, such as abuse, bullying, death of a loved one, or abandonment, our brains can lock into a cycle of remembering and replaying the psychological and emotional effects of the events. If the events are too much to handle at any point in life, we may naturally look for ways to protect ourselves from having to experience this pain over and over. This is when some of us become vulnerable to the development of addictions, which provides a way of hiding or covering up this pain. We essentially learn to be addicted as a way of coping with past trauma.
If a person is suffering from addiction, the answer is not always as simple as just quitting, moderating or making better judgments. This learned process of addiction that results from trauma can be very powerful. The addictive substances or activities can actually feel as if they are needed in order to survive. After all, for those of us with past trauma, addictions are exactly how we survived psychologically and emotionally for many years. Because this learned process carries so much power in our lives, recovery from addiction may be very difficult – and, in some cases, impossible – unless the underlying trauma is dealt with effectively.
Neuroplasticity, as it relates to trauma and addiction, may sound like nothing but bad news, but there is a bright side! The big implication of neuroplasticity is that, if our brain changes itself based on our experiences, then changing the way we relate to our experiences can actively reshape our brains. One way to consciously change our experience is to learn how to apply mindfulness, the ability to be intentionally aware of our inner experience of thoughts, emotions and sensations as they are happening.
By being more aware of our present experience as it is happening, we begin to form a naturally more peaceful and non-reactive response to what is happening. Things that once seemed like threats are no longer perceived that way. The cookies, wine or other obsessions no longer have the same pull. Through mindfulness, the pathways in the brain that have recorded trauma and have locked us into a cycle of addiction as a way to cope with that trauma, begin to change. The very mechanism that brought about our suffering becomes our way out of suffering. The pain of our past becomes the key to our present freedom.
Scott Kiloby is a noted author, international speaker and the director of the Kiloby Center for Recovery in Rancho Mirage which focuses on treatment through mindfulness. For more information visit KilobyCenter.com.