Trauma and Shame: Gateways into addiction

Substance abuse and addiction can be confusing to understand. Often it’s misunderstood by individuals and families because of dated social stigmas, cultural judgments, and misinformation that is circulated. These, and other factors, often overshadow the reality of what fuels addiction.   

 1.All of us experience trauma and shame 

Any experience that leaves us feeling rejected, unsafe, and isolated can be traumatic. Shame is also a constant in reality. Shame is a belief that we are bad, broken, unworthy, and unaccepted.  Trauma and shame bring with them powerful painful and unwanted thoughts and feelings that cloud our judgment. Research has shown that individuals who experience multiple forms of trauma and shame during their childhood also experience significantly higher rates of stress-related medical conditions, mental health challenges, and substance abuse as adults.  

Often parents and community leaders, appropriately warn of the dangers of gateway drugs and other influences that lure the young and old into substances use. High-energy power drinks, E-cigarettes/vaping, and an array of loosely supervised pills and potions are now available at almost any convenience store.  These gateway substances along with cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and marijuana, do pose realistic dangers on their own and do increase the odds of addiction in an individual. However, they are often still symptoms of a deeper masked pain.  

  1. The understanding of trauma and shame and its impact on addiction.

Part of what is attractive about using substances is that it gives the user the illusion of control. All of us crave control because we associate control with safety and power.  

Those seeking relief from overwhelming trauma and shame often turn to substances to create a numbing sanctuary symbolizing their sense of control.  The desperate search for emotional and physiological relief can be intense and armed with a strong negative self-image and/or self-worth, it becomes increasing difficult for the person struggling with such emotions to combat negative thoughts and actions by themselves.  

Even though this process looks different for each of us. People often struggle to understand how their loved one, who is a fundamentally good and loving person, can turn to destructive and/or manipulative behaviors to solve personal problems. They often don’t understand the pain or the reasoning for this form of problem solving. The process feels very offensive and personal. By the time someone understands why that person is relief seeking, via drug, alcohol, and medications, everyone is traumatized.  The trust of close family and friends gets eroded and each party begins to react to the other’s behaviors. Sadly, this cycle happens daily in every community.  

  1. How can we break the cycle?

Step #1:  Critical thinking is identifying the root cause of the problem. It’s critical that everyone recognize that the substance was the solution to the primary problem of pain. Shifting your perspective allows you to work side by side with your loved ones to deal with the effects of shame and trauma, not just trying to control the other person’s behavior.      

Step #2:  Break the reactive cycle by using empathy and compassion. Recognizing that everyone is fundamentally good even when going through pain. Punishing, shaming, engaging in power struggles, or impulsively reacting to personal fear rarely calms the situation or helps anyone see clearly the very hurt and vulnerable human being right in front of them. Shifting our perspective allows us to use tools like empathy and compassion to help strengthen our relationships. 

Step #3: Focus on your personal health.  Instead of attempting to control or react to the behaviors of others, shift your time and energy to being the best version of you.  Improving your communication skills, identifying and setting personal boundaries, attending mental health counseling, and attending group support meetings are often great places to start.  



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Written by Ben Pearson, LCSW

Ben Pearson currently works as the Clinical Director for Chateau Recovery and Choice Recovery.Addiction and mental health treatment are issues close to Ben's heart and motivates his desire to help create a unique treatment experience for individuals and families.