Trauma Therapy During Addiction Treatment
We’ve all heard the old adage: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
But how do we derive strength from those events that feel like they might, indeed, be life-threatening? How do we take the things that happen to us in our lives and impact us in detrimental ways, and turn them to our advantage?
That’s the goal of the Trauma Therapy work that goes on at Cornerstone of Recovery, because we often find that for those who come to us for help with addiction to alcohol and drugs, the substances themselves are just a symptom of the problem. The true source of misery is an emotional one, and it often manifests as a reaction to a traumatic event or events that have taken place in our patients’ lives.
In other words, many of our clients have turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What was once a diagnosis exclusively for combat veterans is now applicable to the general population, and neuroscience has recognized that all manner of traumatic events – from violent physical encounters to the impact of a divorce on an impressionable child – can set the stage for PTSD. At Cornerstone, our whole goal is to help patients determine the nature of the trauma in their lives and equip them with the coping skills to both process it and make peace with it.
What does trauma entail, exactly? We recognize that trauma comes in two broad varieties – “Big T” traumas, in which the victim’s physical safety was in jeopardy (military combat, domestic violence/assault, even the survival of a catastrophic event like a hurricane), and “little t” traumas, which are often emotionally developmental events that occur in just about everyone’s lives. The fascinating – or troubling, depending on how you look at it – thing about the brain, however, is that it treats both types of trauma in the same manner.
The sympathetic nervous system is aroused … the body is flooded with neurochemicals like cortisol and adrenaline … certain body functions like the immune system and the digestive system are shut down … and the traumatic events are cataloged as fragmented memories. Without getting too technical, they’re stored as shards of thoughts, images, emotions and body sensations – TIES, we call them – that can trigger a full-body response to the most benign of stimuli. A victim of domestic violence, for example, walks by a man in the grocery store who wears the same cologne her abusive husband did, and her body begins to react.
So what does trauma have to do with addiction? Often, drugs and alcohol are used as coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional pain of traumatic events. They’re used as anesthesia to numb the memories, to stem the body’s involuntary reactions, to silence the thoughts that rise to the surface unbidden. But as effective as the drugs might be in the beginning, they also serve to keep an individual from moving past the trauma, and in many cases, the lifestyle that accompanies addiction often adds new traumas or exacerbates existing ones.
As part of the therapeutic process at Cornerstone, the first step is to address the addiction; only after the drugs are removed can our trained clinical staff begin to unravel the tangled web of memories and emotions that make up the psychological damage those events have caused. A variety of therapies are used to address and resolve trauma, from group therapies such as Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), individual therapies such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or family therapies such as Internal Family Systems. Our therapists continue to introduce new techniques as well, such as Acceptance and Integration Training and other emerging therapies. With these therapies, a patient’s trauma can be addressed in more direct and exact ways; combined with Schema Therapy and cognitive therapeutic approaches as well as experiential activities therapies, those thoughts, images, emotions and body sensations are reconnected. Fragmented memories begin to be made whole, and the distress they evoke is eased as those memories are unlinked. Patients begin to recognize their feelings and put a name to them instead of allowing them to rise to the surface in a torrent of primal fear, and with tools like Acceptance and Integration Training, patients are able to confront the trauma in their lives without being overwhelmed or consumed.
For many of them, Cornerstone’s Trauma Therapy is a foundation to more extensive work that must be addressed over a longer period of time. That foundation, however, will allow them to make connections with how trauma has affected their relationships and infused all areas of their lives, including their addiction. Addressing it in a supportive environment with trained professionals is the first step on a journey of healing that many patients don’t even realize they need, and until they come through one of Cornerstone’s numerous treatment programs, they don’t understand how deeply it’s interwoven into every aspect of their lives.
We understand that there’s a lot of fear that comes with the idea of addressing past traumatic events. We maintain, however, that addiction is a symptom of the chaos those events have caused in the lives of our patients, and in order to move on with life free of addiction’s shackles, the root causes must be addressed. We’ll stand by you every step of the way and guide you through that process, because we believe that on the other side of it, you’ll find a sense of freedom you never knew existed – from the drugs, but also from the pain you’ve carried for so long. We know, from experience and research, that education, preparation and therapy can help patients process their trauma, weaken the stranglehold of vividness it has on their lives and reframe it in a way that does indeed make them stronger individuals.
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