On this blog, we often discuss the ways in which substance abuse affects the brain. Regular drug use corrupts neurotransmission, builds new associations, and rewards negative behaviors. Would you be surprised to learn that trauma can rewire your brain in a similar way? If you find yourself continually seeking stressful situations, you may be stuck in a loop of creating and repeating your own trauma.
Trauma Definition: What is Trauma?
Trauma is a universal human experience. At some point, we will all lose a love one, live through a natural disaster, or witness a disturbing event. An unlucky percentage will be the victims of ongoing abuse.
Regardless of what you go through, trauma is defined as the gap between an external threat and our inner resources to deal with it. Any time that a person is overwhelmed by fear or hopelessness, they have experienced such an event.
When these incidents come to pass, our brains are changed forever. Research indicates that traumatic stress can result in “increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors.” This means that once you have been in a car accident, for example, you are more likely to find yourself jumping at sudden noises. The brain also learns to associate certain stimuli with the traumatic event; in the same example, you may develop anxiety around driving (or even riding in) a similar vehicle to the one that crashed.
Unfortunately, our brain’s ability to learn from negative experiences means that many of us are prone to recreating the very situations that caused our trauma in the first place.
Emotional Abuse, Reenactment, and Revictimization
Victims of trauma are marked by an array of psychiatric symptoms, including chronic stress, intrusive thoughts, nightmares of the event, and hypervigilance. They may also unconsciously repeat the trauma in their day-to-day lives. In the field of clinical psychology, these phenomena are known as reenactments.
This pattern is most easily demonstrated through the example of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Research shows that women who were sexually abused in their youth are more likely to be the victims of similar abuse in adulthood. While it may seem odd that a person who has undergone such horrific treatment would replicate the experience, this type of reenactment is both common and easily explained.
Put simply, a person’s vulnerability to abuse is often directly related to the trauma they have experienced. Cincinnati Children’s Noll Lab explains that revictimization – becoming the victim of a similar type of abuse later in life – may be impacted by factors such as depression, substance use, dissociation, and attachment issues attributed to the first instance of abuse.
Stress Seeking Behavior Explained
If you find yourself engaging in a series of bad relationships, overcoming a laundry list of substance use disorders, or repeating your trauma, there are a few scientific explanations.
Your standards have shifted. Those who have experienced active addiction understand the rollercoaster of drinking and drug use. They have felt the depths of withdrawal and the highs of substance use. These feelings can linger, and you may find yourself seeking similar sensations through other outlets.
You may not remember the trauma. There is significant evidence that, in order to cope with trauma, our brains may block our capacity to remember it. This may happen in the moment (dissociation, when a person mentally “leaves the room”) or after the fact (through a type of amnesia). These mental escapes can inhibit our ability to identify similar threats in the future.
These events affect your self-esteem. Unfortunately, trauma can diminish a person’s self-esteem. A child may rationalize that being placed in foster care was something they deserved, for example, rather than a necessity for their safety. These internalized beliefs result in self-sabotaging behaviors later in life.
Trauma clouds your perception of relationships. If you have had an abusive partner in the past, you are probably familiar with the cycle of such a relationship. These manipulative individuals will “love bomb” their significant others between negative events, resulting in extremely high highs and very low lows. This trains people to believe that all relationships are turbulent by nature.
No matter what you have gone through or how it has affected you, it is important to know that help is available.
While trauma significantly impacts our lives, it is possible to lessen its effects and begin to heal. Therapists are especially instrumental in this process. Through professional care, you can find safety, name your trauma, and avoid future reenactments.
In therapy, you will be able to share your story in a safe space. The clinician will help you to analyze what happened and how it has affected you. Group sessions and experiential therapies may also be used to generate feelings of acceptance, experience social support, and uncover nonverbal means of expression.
If trauma has shaped your life and resulted in a pattern of stress-seeking behavior, know that you are not alone. Help is available. At Lakeside-Milam, we specialize in using trauma-informed care to address mental illness and substance use disorder. To learn more, contact our admissions staff today.