“The comfort and escape that I felt through drug use was all I had,” my friend Alyssa explained. “But at the end of the day, I came to realize that all I was doing was isolating myself even more, and the trauma hadn’t gone anywhere—I just wasn’t feeling it.” Since meeting Alyssa, I saw her gradually cut herself off from the people around her. I knew she was using drugs, but at the time I didn’t realize that she was also suffering from trauma of being abused as a child—trauma that was still hurting her.
Experiencing a traumatic event in your life, be it sexual, physical, or psychological abuse, disaster or military combat, can drastically alter your psychological makeup and cause your daily experiences to be consumed by the feelings and memories connected to the event. Each day, emotions connected to the trauma can surface and cause you to feel as if there is no escape from your past. Turning to substances seems like the preferable solution—it can numb you to the pain that you constantly feel and take your mind off of the events in your past that have a crippling grip on your present. In what seems like the blink of an eye, you might now find yourself at the mercy of a new enemy: your addiction.
How Trauma Spawns Addiction
For years, experts have noted the connection between trauma and addiction, and recent research continues to solidify this link. One review highlights evidence that people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and addiction are both over-responsive to environmental cues that trigger specific memories. In the case of those with PTSD, this memory causes them to relive their traumatic event, and for addicts, it can also trigger a craving for the substance of abuse. Ultimately, individuals with trauma are more susceptible to addiction due to underlying brain pathology that makes them more likely to experience cravings for drugs, and addicts are more likely to develop a trauma disorder for the same reason. Through this toxic relationship, individuals can easily find themselves falling into a pattern of drug use not only to escape trauma but also because their brains are hardwired to do so.
Another study found a strong connection between substance use and the degree of childhood sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, as well as current PTSD symptoms. The results from both papers highlight the possibility that those who have undergone trauma possess altered brain activity that not only increases their likelihood of falling down the path of addiction, but it also compounds the intensity of current emotions and feelings linked to the traumatic event. The similar brain chemistry between these two disorders highlights the importance of concurrent treatment, as leaving one untreated can cause symptoms of the other to resurface and undermine your progress.
Addressing Your Trauma Using Art Therapy
Living your life in the clutches of addiction might numb you to your traumatic memories, but it’s a dark path that doesn’t ever lead to an examination of the root of your problem. In order to break free of addiction caused by trauma, you must confront the root cause of the addiction: the traumatic event in your life. Much like Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR) allows clients to access traumatic memories and gain a more healthy awareness of them, art therapy can help you deal with the traumatic memories and emotions that spill into your everyday life and cause you to turn to substances to ease the pain.
“The art provides a different dimension that most of us don’t know how to say,” said Nancy Gerber, who heads the PhD Program in Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University. “A picture can tell a story about our internal life that isn’t accessible in words.”
Research suggests that the process of creating art involves the same regions of the brain that are used to access memories and process emotions. Since trauma stems from a dysfunction of emotion and memory, researchers are exploring the benefits of art therapy for expressing traumatic memories. Data also suggest that when memories are accessed through art, they activate the brain’s hemispheres and recall the trauma in a different way than verbal forms of expression. For example, in some cases, an event marked by such terror might not be able to be expressed verbally. In these situations, talk therapy might be unable to properly deal with certain forms of trauma, which is why art therapy is such a crucial and powerful tool for the healing process.
Art therapy has also been shown to help in the process of dealing with shame, an issue that is widely regarded to be at the root of all addictions and one that is addressed in any kind of treatment program. Reducing shame is a crucial part of the recovery process, and art therapy can provide a means for addicts to express and process feelings of shame, making it easier for them to come to terms with the difficulties of addiction and move forward through treatment.
Recovery Through Expression
The intertwined nature of substance abuse and trauma-related disorders can leave you feeling trapped in a lifestyle with no hope of escape. At the end of the day, using drugs to deal with the pain that your trauma causes you is an understandable solution, but one that’s not in your best interest. With the right help, you can come to realize that you don’t need to be trapped in this vicious cycle any longer and can get started on the road to dealing with your feelings in a positive way.
Art therapy allows you to experience your trauma in the same intensely emotional way that it happened, promoting a positive release of your feelings and giving you a healthy, cathartic way to express the whirlwind of emotions connected to your trauma. Through this process, you can come to accept your past experiences and no longer need to use drugs to escape their clutches. With the proper tools to pull you out of the pattern of hiding from your pain, you can see that it is possible to live alongside it in a healthy, positive way.
Alta Mira offers art therapy as a part of our comprehensive addiction rehabilitation program for those who are using their substance abuse to self-medicate their trauma. If you or a loved one is suffering from trauma-induced addiction, contact us today to learn more about our programs and how they can help reveal and resolve the emotions that lie at the root of the pain.
Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Mike Petrucci