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How Trauma Can Transform Into Addiction

traumaOn June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed, 53 injured by a gunman at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The trauma that the families of the victims lost in the tragedy, the survivors and their families will continue to experience following the unexpected violence will not go away anytime soon.

Unfortunately, traumatic events like this often result in thoughts and feelings that are very difficult to deal with. Seeking professional support following trauma of any kind is a way to stay mentally healthy and deal with those emotions in a constructive way.

Post-trauma comes in many forms

One of the most common images we put together in our heads when we think of PTSD is that of a war veteran struggling to come to terms with the events he or she experienced while in combat, but this is only one of many kinds of instances that can trigger various negative reactions to trauma.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, post-traumatic stress disorder can, but does not always, result when someone experiences a scary, dangerous or shocking event. Feelings of fear and anxiety are part of a normal fight or flight response following a traumatic event, but while some quickly recover from that response, others unfortunately continue to experience symptoms.

  • Those experiencing PTSD may continue to feel frightened or unsafe even when they are not in any danger. They may continue to be startled easily, feel tense or have difficulty sleeping.
  • They may have flashbacks or nightmares, directly or indirectly associated with the traumatic event.
  • They may avoid events, objects, conversations or places that remind them of the traumatic event.
  • They may also avoid feelings or thoughts that relate to the traumatic event.

This last symptom is extremely important, and is the reason why finding any kind of support following a traumatic event is essential. When someone who has experienced a traumatic event avoids turning to a specific place or keeping an object in the house that reminds them of the event, that is one thing. Suppressing feelings and trying to avoid thoughts and memories of their experiences is something completely different, and something that should not be taken lightly.

Addiction is an avoidance behavior

Psychologically, when we encounter things that are hurtful or frightening, our initial instinct is to respond by doing everything we can to make sure we do not have to experience that hurt or anxiety again. In some cases, such as touching a hot stove and burning our hand, this can be a good thing: we learn that if we touch the stove when it is hot, we will get burned, and we do not repeat that behavior.

In some cases, such as trauma, it can also be a good thing. We might learn to be more cautious, travel in groups, avoid unsafe situations or heighten our awareness of our surroundings in case our brains start telling us to flee. But it can also be a bad thing, because thoughts, feelings, and memories are not at all easy things to avoid.

  • Addiction often surfaces when there is something a person wishes to avoid experiencing or thinking about.
  • Temporary “escapes” almost never result in temporary dependence on a behavior, object or substance.
  • Following trauma, it can be difficult for a person and/or their friends and family to recognize that certain behaviors are abnormal. They may think it is simply a side effect of the traumatic event, and that it will go away on its own.

In the aftermath of traumatic events such as the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, one of the best things we can do is find and/or offer physical and emotional support. Dealing with negative emotions is hard enough without adding trauma into the equation. It is not easy for anyone. But reaching out, either as someone who needs support or someone who can give it to someone else, is a step in the right direction. Healing is possible. Take a look at the recovery process.

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