By Nicole Makin, MACP, RCC
Having found my place in the rooms of Al-anon in my 20’s, I was blessed to find an incredible therapist who was 20 years sober in AA and highly trained in the treatment of trauma. With her support, I processed events from childhood that still overwhelmed me and contributed greatly to my codependent behaviors as an adult. With a sense of safety and trust established we moved on to EMDR therapy, a powerful form of trauma processing, and I rapidly moved from chronic anger, depression and insecurity to a sense of personal freedom and purpose in life that is still with me today. I learned how to inhabit and listen to my body’s messages through prayer, meditation, yoga, diet, exercise and daily affirmations. I reset my nervous system from stressed to calm and confident and was able to develop skills in areas I was deficient in due to traumatic childhood experiences. I went from feeling as though isolation was my only relationship skill to developing a sense of community and trusting myself with a variety of relationships. Now that we offer EMDR therapy in both our Vancouver and Victoria clinics, here are 5 things you need to know about EMDR, trauma and addiction:
1) Growth and development are stunted in addiction.
In treatment we say that a person’s mental and emotional age typically reflects the age when substance use begins. This is also true if you were raised in a home where substances were being abused and poor role modeling was mixed with the stress of living amidst addiction. In either case, the result is that we have a lot of people in recovery with adult bodies who have the emotional intelligence of 12-15 year olds. And like any 15 year old, they are often lacking in interpersonal communication, boundary setting, self-care, managing stress and problem solving. If we want to be healthy and reach our full potential in life, it is our job to become our own loving parent and help ourselves grow up!
2) Addiction and trauma often go hand in hand.
Addiction and trauma are often correlated. Amongst individuals with addiction disorders, many have experienced trauma while many trauma survivors struggle with addiction. What folks with addiction and trauma issues have in common is that we often arrive into adulthood lacking in the personal growth and development skills we talked about in number one. In fact, some people view addiction as a misguided attempt to gain a sense of control over the enormous stress that people experience when they lack the emotional maturity and healthy supports or coping skills to meet normal life challenges in resourceful ways.
3) Trauma effects the functioning of the brain and the nervous system.
Mental health researchers and neuroscientists are widely in agreement that emotional trauma impacts the brain and the nervous system, particularly when it takes place during critical child developmental years. Children and adults who experience trauma often become more sensitive to external stimuli and it is believed that this is due to several factors happening in the brain and nervous systems. This means that people who have experienced trauma are not as resilient as those who haven’t; they often feel unsafe when others don’t, and their brain can “shut down” during times of high stress. This means that their brains are more vulnerable to the risks of addiction, and less able to deal with triggers when in recovery.
4) You can learn to be more resilient to life challenges.
The notion of resiliency is commonly discussed in the psychology field and it is believed that regardless of the nature or severity of trauma an individual experiences, certain individuals have the ability to overcome challenges and emerge stronger and wiser. Can we learn to be more resilient? According to the American Psychological Association website (2015), “resiliency is not a trait people either have or don’t have” but rather it is a skill set made up of “behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” Bottom line: trauma doesn’t have to stand in your way forever because you can learn the skills you need.
5) EMDR can help!
EMDR is a form of psychotherapy designed to help treat the symptoms of trauma. It allows a client to to address a traumatic experience that has overwhelmed the natural resilience and coping mechanisms of the brain. The painful memory is reprocessed through an eight-phased technique until it is no longer psychologically disturbing. By working with a skilled clinician, individuals can learn to understand their body’s stress response and how to achieve a sense of calm in the nervous system so that the brain can do the processing needed in order to integrate past experiences and move on with healthy living in the present. EMDR has been shown to be particularly effective in overcoming trauma by assisting individuals to develop the tools to change their state from stressed to calm and to fully process traumatic events so that they are no longer disturbed or triggered by them in the present moment.