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Addicted to Trauma?

 

What is it about trauma that can have such a seductive pull? Can our bodies become addicted to trauma and its effect on us?

As horrific as the trauma exposures of war can be for many combat veterans, many long to return after they are safe at home. In his article “Why Soldiers Miss War,” Nolan Peterson explains that many combat veterans’ worst and best life experiences often occurred during combat. While in battle, they long for peace and reuniting with their families, but they often experience a void in their lives when they are finally home.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of  "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing Trauma", also found that many survivors of past trauma often went back to risky environments or abusive relationships even after making significant progress in therapy.

For those without trauma exposure, this desire may be hard to understand.

Once again, hormones likely are at play in this puzzling circumstance. One more hormone, in particular, might provide a further understanding of this seductive effect. In addition to the fight or flight hormone response of adrenaline and cortisol, endorphins also play an essential role in trauma exposure.

Endorphins are released during prolonged trauma exposure. Ironically, endorphins are often referred to as one of the “happy hormones.” While other “happy hormones” manipulate the body’s pleasure and reward system, endorphins act differently. Endorphins impact the body by blocking pain.

Feeling No Pain

In a study with combat veterans, van der Kolk found that even watching a violent movie for 15 minutes was enough to trigger the release of endorphins. Furthermore, this release of endorphins caused a 30% increase in pain tolerance levels in the participants.

The most shocking thing about this study was the number of endorphins that flooded the body in those 15 minutes. This endorphin flood was equivalent to injecting the body with 8 milligrams of morphine. For reference, the Mayo Clinic typically advises 1 – 5 milligrams of morphine be administered to those suffering from severe pain.

Addicted to Trauma

What causes the trauma addiction? Highly addictive opioids like morphine and heroin impact the body by mimicking the natural effects of endorphins. Fortunately, the endorphins released during trauma exposure do not typically saturate the brain’s pleasure and reward system to the level that occurs with opioids. With that said, endorphins are powerful natural pain relievers.

Endorphins can provide a very attractive release for those experiencing chronic physical or emotional pain. But unfortunately, when this release is the only escape from the pain, our bodies naturally crave more.

Another addictive chemical release that can occur during trauma exposure is dopamine. Unlike endorphins, this chemical directly impacts the body’s pleasure and reward system. Dopamine release is most common in trauma exposures that involve power or victory over others.

When combining endorphin’s pain-numbing effects, dopamine’s direct reward system impact, and the adrenaline rush, it becomes apparent why the body would crave this potent neurochemical cocktail. It’s understandable how someone may return to an environment that was a source of trauma.

Trauma-Informed Leadership

Reviewing the research on the hormone responses in trauma exposures makes it clear why certain behaviors occur, even in the workplace. Hopefully, you now better understand the challenges those with trauma exposures are experiencing. Trauma-informed leaders’ last step will be learning some practical tools to navigate these challenges.

In the next article, I will look at a trauma-informed leader’s tools and investigate ways to develop a trauma-informed culture in the workplace.

Previous in the series: Fight or Flight Hormone Response

Next in the series: Building a Trauma-Informed Culture

This article was reposted with permission from the Surrounded Leader.

Photo Credit: Colin

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@Josh Stumbo posted:

Ian Morgan Cron made the following statement in a recent podcast:

"All human beings are addicts. The benefit of having a chemical addiction is that eventually, everyone else knows about your addiction."

What are your thoughts on that statement?

He makes this statement around 11:55 into the podcast if you want more context.

I've long believed/said that we all are addicted to something, to some degree; although some addictions may be a lot less health-hazardous than others.

As for Ian Morgan Cron's statement, "The benefit of having a chemical addiction is that eventually, everyone else knows about your addiction"; does he mean that a chemical or drug addiction will eventually expose itself to everyone around you and therefore receive treatment at the insistence of those who care about that chemical addict's wellbeing?

Otherwise his words don't really make sense to me.

I don't believe it is courage that leads an addict to return to situations where trauma is historically experienced.  It is fear -- fear of change and a resignation of always failing, so why even try.  Those situations are what is known to the addict .. healthier situations are not always open or available.

The preconceived erroneous notion that addicts are simply weak-willed and/or have committed a moral crime is, fortunately, gradually dying.

Still, neglecting people dealing with debilitating drug addiction should never have been an acceptable or preferable political option. But the callous politics typically involved with addiction funding/services likely reflect conservative electorate opposition, however irrational, towards making proper treatment available to low-  and no-income addicts.

It's as though some people, however precious, can tragically be consciously or subconsciously considered disposable — especially by government bean-counters — because they are debilitatedly addicted to drugs. Then those people may begin perceiving themselves as worthless and consume their addictive substances more haphazardly.

I used to be one of those who, while sympathetic, would look down on those who’d ‘allowed’ themselves to become addicted to alcohol and illicit drugs. Yet, though I have not been personally affected by the opioid addiction/overdose crisis, I myself have suffered enough unrelenting ACE-related hyper-anxiety to have known, enjoyed and appreciated the great release upon consuming alcohol and/or THC.

Ian Morgan Cron made the following statement in a recent podcast:

"All human beings are addicts. The benefit of having a chemical addiction is that eventually, everyone else knows about your addiction."

What are your thoughts on that statement?

He makes this statement around 11:55 into the podcast if you want more context.

Last edited by Josh Stumbo

The preconceived erroneous notion that addicts are simply weak-willed and/or have committed a moral crime is, fortunately, gradually dying.

Still, neglecting people dealing with debilitating drug addiction should never have been an acceptable or preferable political option. But the callous politics typically involved with addiction funding/services likely reflect conservative electorate opposition, however irrational, towards making proper treatment available to low-  and no-income addicts.

It's as though some people, however precious, can tragically be consciously or subconsciously considered disposable — especially by government bean-counters — because they are debilitatedly addicted to drugs. Then those people may begin perceiving themselves as worthless and consume their addictive substances more haphazardly.

I used to be one of those who, while sympathetic, would look down on those who’d ‘allowed’ themselves to become addicted to alcohol and illicit drugs. Yet, though I have not been personally affected by the opioid addiction/overdose crisis, I myself have suffered enough unrelenting ACE-related hyper-anxiety to have known, enjoyed and appreciated the great release upon consuming alcohol and/or THC.

Great insight Howard, thanks for sharing. I imagine it takes a tremendous amount of courage to return to those situations and take a different approach. It seems like this would be a situation where boundary setting will play a key role. For example, we may want to reconnect with family members who have caused trauma in our lives, but we must be clear about what we will and will not tolerate. I've seen this work well and I've also seen it blow up. Regardless of how the other person responded, it was empowering to know that we could set the boundary and were strong enough to hold to it. In situations where we were once powerless, we were able to regain health control.           

I want to add another dimension to consider when viewing trauma and an individual's desire to return to the experience.  I have come to view trauma differently based on years of experience in working with individuals who experienced childhood trauma and on achieving a lot of success in addressing this trauma.  The common element appears to be lack of a positive sense of self -- an ability to see one's self as being in control of one's self and surroundings -- of no longer being the victim or experiencing the guilt of being at fault.  Once the individual regains this sense of self they move rapidly toward healing.  I found that those returning to situations where trauma recurs are often working to correct what didn't work in the past.     hchaim@gmail.com        facebook.com/yourhiddendoor.com

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