When people struggle with trauma, they often strive to project an aspect of normalcy. If they haven’t sought professional treatment to remedy the effects of trauma, or the therapeutic approach wasn’t successful, they frequently revert to other coping mechanisms to shield themselves.
Unfortunately, not all coping mechanisms are healthy, and some will compound an individual’s negative experiences in life.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a definition of trauma: “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Trauma can affect people of any age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.
According to SAMHSA, in the United States, “61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event, and 90 percent of clients in public behavioral health care settings have experienced trauma.” But note: those are the reported cases. What about people who don’t understand trauma and how it might be overshadowing their thoughts and behaviors?
How Trauma Manifests
Most people understand that experiencing something life-altering and tragic, such as war or terrorism, is traumatic. As an example, people closest to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City—whether by proximity or relatability—had higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than, say, people living in Tucson who might have watched the tragedy unfold on television but didn’t have a direct connection to the events. This doesn’t mean Tucsonans weren’t affected: it simply indicates the circumstances were less likely to imprint into their brain patterns and impact their daily lives.
Now, consider the various types of trauma, as outlined by Teach Trauma:
- Child maltreatment, including abandonment, neglect, emotional or psychological abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.
- Domestic violence, defined as “actual or threatened physical or sexual violence, and/or emotional abuse between adults in an intimate relationship.” Witnessing domestic violence against a partner or parent can also be traumatizing.
- Medical trauma, such as children or adults having adverse reactions to chronic or serious illnesses, invasive medical procedures, or painful treatments.
- Natural disasters, including earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and other incidents that result in damages that require local, state, or federal agencies to step in.
- School and community violence, such as bullying and “predatory violence or personal conflicts between people who are not family members (e.g., shootings, rape, robbery).”
- Sexual assault, which includes “any unwanted and involuntary sexual behavior towards a person. The victim is forced or coerced to engage in an act against their will in a non-consensual setting.”
- Traumatic loss, which is severe grief caused by unexpectedly losing someone close.
- War-related trauma, including combat-related PTSD, terrorism, and refugee and war zone trauma.
When someone experiences trauma, they often develop a condition called dysregulation. This compromises metabolic, physiological, or psychological process regulation—which means they might develop behavioral and process addiction disorders to compensate for their inability to address or cope with what happened to them.
Understanding Process Addictions
Sometimes referred to as urge-driven disorders or behavioral addictions, the American Psychiatric Association list the primary process addictions as:
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, binge eating, bulimia nervosa, and other associated conditions
- Gambling disorder
- Gaming and internet gaming disorder
Other recognized urge-driven disorders include, but aren’t limited to:
- Hypersexual activity
- Compulsive shopping
- Exercise addiction
- Internet and/or social media addiction
- Compulsive pornography viewing
- Food addiction
Scientists state that the difference between hobbies or casual activities and process addictions includes two major factors:
- A compulsive, almost obsessive, urge to participate in the activity, driven by chemical changes in the brain.
- The presence of some form of dysregulation.
Other symptoms include hiding the behavior, losing control over participation, and experiencing negative effects when unable to participate in the behavior.
For example, a teenager who witnesses domestic violence and is bullied at school may become obsessed with video or online games because he or she has the ability to control those artificial environments. Or someone who was sexually assaulted or abused might act out through hypersexual behaviors to avoid dealing with complex emotions, or because he or she has trouble regulating brain distortions in arousal functioning.
Treating Trauma and Process Addictions
Many people don’t understand the implications of process addictions because on the surface, most of these behaviors are acceptable in society. After all, who doesn’t like a day with gal pals shopping, or who among us hasn’t had a little too much to eat during Thanksgiving?
The key is compulsivity. Process addictions are usually hard to control, and someone can’t simply stop—even if these behaviors cause serious health, relationship, or financial consequences—because just like substance abuse disorder, an individual’s brain chemistry has been altered to respond to the urge-driven rewards provided by their actions.
So the first step in treatment is to identify the root cause of the behavior through individual and group counseling. During therapy, a person can begin to develop healthier coping mechanisms to not only deal with the behavior, but also move through—and beyond—trauma.
We Can Help
At Cottonwood Tucson, we understand the complexity of trauma and process addictions, and have a team of compassionate experts ready to help. Contact us to learn more.