When the majority of people think of trauma, they think of sexual assault and military combat, but the actual scope of trauma is much more far-reaching. A traumatic experience is an event that is too overwhelming for your brain to handle. Examples include childhood neglect, a bad breakup, grief, loss, and suffering from a chronic illness.
The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction
Trauma causes your nervous system to become dysregulated and makes you feel stuck in the past, as if your painful experience is still happening long after it’s done. Put simply, your brain cannot make a traumatic memory feel like a memory, blurring the line between past and present. When something comes along that reminds you of your trauma, your body goes into a stress reaction, and you may experience hyperarousal, muscle tension, or panic attacks. All of these are symptoms of PTSD.
Due to how overwhelming trauma can be, it’s natural to turn to “numbing” behaviors that help you disconnect from your feelings. This is how the cycle of addiction often starts. To escape the emotional pain that trauma caused, you may turn to drinking, drugs, gambling, pornography, and other habits. These behaviors provide relief for the chronic stress and hyperarousal that trauma causes, temporarily calming a dysregulated nervous system.
In the long run, however, addiction only adds to the pain of trauma. Addictive behaviors may distract you from traumatic memories, but they cannot heal them since they do not address the root cause of your pain. They offer a quick fix but not long-lasting relief.
How EMDR Can Help You Heal From Trauma and Get to the Root of Your Addiction
One of the most effective methods for treating trauma is EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). The beauty of EMDR is that it gets straight to the source of your emotional pain and addresses the root cause of your addiction. It seeks to minimize the impact of traumatic memories on you, reducing your need for drugs, alcohol, and other quick fixes and unhealthy dependencies.
EMDR differs from standard talk therapy in that it doesn’t require you to go into detail about your trauma. It is minimally invasive. After all, talking about trauma can be re-traumatizing in and of itself since it forces you to dwell on what happened to you. With EMDR, you can share as much or as little of your story as you want. This approach is more concerned with images, feelings, and sensations than words.
At its core, the process of EMDR is very similar to a REM sleep cycle. During REM, the brain unconsciously processes memories and stores them in their proper place. EMDR works with unprocessed memories, but unlike REM sleep, it helps you process them while you are conscious and awake. The approach uses a series of gentle stimulation techniques to desensitize the pain you feel when you recall traumatic events. In other words, EMDR helps you take the edge off of your pain, allowing you to remember what happened without feeling distressed.
How does all of this connect to addiction? Trauma makes you want to escape your feelings — EMDR helps you overcome this need to escape. It can help you feel more at home in your body and experience less of a need to “numb out” through drugs, drinking, and other habits. After all, addiction is characterized by an intense emotional craving that starts in the body. By treating the pain stored in the body, you can heal the emotional wounds fueling your habit.
How EMDR Works
While its name may sound rather complicated, EMDR follows a very straightforward protocol. It has you perform a series of bilateral stimulation exercises — such as tapping your knees or moving your eyes back and forth — as you recall distressing images or events. Doing so engages both the left and right sides of your brain, the “feeling” side and the “thinking” side. This allows the brain to move memories out of the feeling side and into the thinking side, reducing the emotional overwhelm of trauma. As a result, you can look back on your trauma calmly, rationally, and without a sense of alarm.
However, EMDR therapy involves much more than just bilateral stimulation. A considerable part of the process is about grounding and de-stressing. After all, sometimes recalling painful events can make you feel anxious or depressed. That’s why it’s essential to develop coping skills that you can use to center yourself during sessions. You and your therapist can work together to develop strategies for staying grounded, such as meditation, breathwork, and other mindfulness-based activities. What these skills are depends on what works best for you individually.