At Springfield Wellness Center we’ve seen so often how traumatic experiences—a car accident, a violent crime, active military duty, witnessing violence inflicted on others, or even surviving a life-threatening natural disasters like an earthquake or hurricane—can lead to addiction. Sometimes, of course, the addiction begins as the result of a prescription intended to alleviate physical pain. However, research shows us that even without lingering physical pain, trauma can activate survival-oriented behaviors that lead to addiction.
This isn’t surprising when you consider that trauma, essentially, is any unhealed wound-whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or sexual, that keeps the survivor stuck in the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system is sometimes called “the emotional brain” and is located deep in the mid-brain. In addition to manifesting as classic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can also result in depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and compulsive behavior—all intended to help the survivor numb the pain and re-establish a sense of control over their lives.
The following statistics, which are from a report issued by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Department of Veterans Affairs, show the strong correlation between trauma and addiction:
- Between 25% and 75% of people who survive abuse and/or violent trauma subsequently abuse alcohol.
- Between 10% and 33% of survivors of accidents, illness, or natural disasters report subsequent alcohol abuse.
- A PTSD diagnosis increases the risk of developing alcohol abuse.
- Both male and female sexual abuse survivors experience a higher rate of alcohol and drug use disorders compared to those who have not experienced sexual abuse.
Other studies yield similar results:
- In the National Survey of Adolescents, teens who had experienced physical or sexual abuse/assault were three times more likely to report past or current substance abuse than those without a history of trauma.
- In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of patients had a history of trauma exposure.
- Trauma is even capable of passing across generations: the adult children of women who were abused while pregnant have a greater likelihood of developing alcohol and drug abuse disorders as the children of mothers who were not abused during pregnancy.
The biochemical reasons that trauma can lead to addiction are beginning to be understood:
Trauma activates the amygdala, the brain’s threat detection center, so that it becomes hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning for and assessing threat. As a result, trauma survivors often feel intensely anxious, vulnerable, and fearful—emotions that may even interfere with sleep, worsening their feelings of anxiety, fear, and vulnerability.
The prefrontal cortex, where the brain’s “executive functions” are processed, is short-circuited when we’re in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Survival takes precedence over logical thinking, cognitive processing, and even impulse control. When a survivor turns to drugs for relief—and later attempts to quit their addictive behavior—the cravings can be overwhelming—retriggering the survival impulse.
The stress of trauma—compounded by the further stress of addiction—depletes the body’s NAD levels, which are needed for feelings of calm, clarity, focus, and well-being. Trauma leads to addiction, leads to NAD depletion, becoming a negatively reinforcing spiral.
Fortunately, BR+NAD addresses both trauma and addiction by helping to reset the brain to its pre-trauma and addicted levels.
“Patrick,” is a decorated combat marine whose story I recount in Addiction: The Dark Night of the Soul; NAD+: The Light of Hope. Patrick had returned from two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan with severe post-traumatic stress, for which the VA had prescribed a cocktail of pain, anxiety, and depression medications to which he was now addicted. And still, the drugs hadn’t stopped his nightmares, jitters, and occasional hallucinations. By the time his father brought him to us, Patrick was desperate. However, on the third day of his BR+NAD treatment, Patrick told us, “Last night was the first time in seven years I didn’t have a nightmare.”
Patrick has now been free of addictions and post-traumatic stress for 10 years. If he feels his trauma symptoms starting to recur, he comes in for a “booster” treatment. In just a few hours, his body’s NAD levels are restored to the point that his own brain can resume providing the stress relief he needs to deal with his life.
Five years after he came to us for treatment, Patrick sent me the following text: “I just wanted to tell you thank you for everything. Today makes five years of being drug free. And I would not trade the life you and Doc gave me back for anything.”
The philosopher Philo of Alexandria is believed to be the originator of the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” That is certainly true of our veterans—and many others—who are suffering from post-traumatic stress. That their stress has led to addiction is not surprising. What is wonderful is that BR+NAD can ease both their trauma and addiction in just 10 short days and put them on the road to recovery.