How Trauma Leads to Addiction: Trauma and the Brain

Although much remains to be learned about the brain, research has proven that trauma, which may be the result of bullying, crime, sexual abuse, accidents, natural disasters, war, neglect or domestic assault, affects the brain in a number of ways.

As a result, there are significant changes in the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala, an area of the brain associated with memory, emotions and survival instincts, becomes overactive when exposed to trauma. As a result, the brain is constantly looking for and perceiving threats, thus triggering severe feelings of anxiety, fear and vulnerability.

Conversely, trauma causes the hippocampus, a small organ in the temporal lobe, to become underactive. The hippocampus is associated with processing of memories and also regulates emotions. When trauma prevents proper processing of memories, the result is an endless and terrifying cycle of disturbing memories.

The medial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain associated with high-level thought, action and decision-making, may also be involved in retrieval of long-term memories. However, when exposed to trauma, the medial prefrontal cortex is overruled by a basic instinct for survival that originates in a more primitive area of the brain. As a result, it becomes very difficult to make wise decisions and to resist the urge to engage in destructive or addictive behavior.

A Few Statistics on Trauma and Addiction

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders at the Department of Veterans Affairs says that between 25 and 75 percent of people who experience violent trauma eventually develop problems with alcohol.

Similarly, between 10 and 33 percent of those who experience traumas such as natural disasters or accidents develop problems with alcohol abuse.

Sexual abuse is one of the most severe forms of trauma. Studies indicate that men and women who experience sexual abuse as children or adults have a much higher rate of substance abuse than those who haven’t experienced sexual abuse.

Although addiction can happen to anybody, individuals with a strong system of supportive friends and family are often able to withstand trauma and avoid turning to substance abuse to relieve painful memories.

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