How Substance Abuse Works According to Neuroscience
When I was a young grad student studying to be a counselor, never once was it mentioned that my clients would have brains and bodies. Now as a therapist with a couple of decades of practice under my belt, having a client turn into their body and helping them understand how their brain works is one of my first steps in the therapeutic process. With my focus being on addiction and trauma, it’s even more critical that these two steps occur.
The field of neuroscience is helping us understand how many addictive processes are started. The main points that I teach my clients is that we come into the world with an innate, biological need for attachment to our primary caregiver who make us feel unconditionally loved, safe and comforted when a basic need arises. The things are critical for healthy brain and nervous system development. And when don’t right, we grow up feeling comfortable in our own skin. We can self-regulate our emotions and have healthy self-esteem. We aren’t constantly looking outside ourselves for inner security.
However, if something goes awry in these areas such as a mentally or physically unhealthy parent, domestic violence, chronic stress or addiction in the home, etc., then we experience developmental trauma which leads to the brain and nervous system not being able to self-regulate and sooth itself.
As we grow, if our environment doesn’t get any better and we’re not getting the love, attention and boundaries that we need for healthy growth and development then it leads to complex trauma with even more symptoms of dysregulation. The dysregulation can manifest in both emotional and physical symptoms. Emotional symptoms include low self-esteem, a vicious inner critic, social anxiety, and toxic shame. Physical symptoms are often connection to the digestive tract, the immune system or chronic pain.
The body and the nervous system want relief! It stays in a constant hypervigilant mode which keeps the most primitive part of our brains on alert for danger and is like having the volume on high all the time screaming Danger, Danger, Danger. People and situations don’t feel safe. The body tenses up, the emotions react in often inappropriate ways. It’s a miserable feeling.
When something like drugs or alcohol comes along that takes the hypervigilance away (even if only temporarily), it’s incredibly soothing and such sweet relief to finally have the volume turned down. And so we return to it again and again. In the beginning it’s perhaps an act of compassion for ourselves (albeit skewed) because we have found something that gives our aching spirit relief and we go for it. Unfortunately, it’s not true relief. And it has severe, life threatening consequences that leads our spirit to being more broken than ever.
But thankfully there is a way to find true, lasting relief. It is through the process of recovery, healing the nervous system, retraining the brain, and finding connection in community that we learn to live, act and feel like we never have before. True recovery is a holistic process and requires that our mind, body and spirit participate, and the results are exponentially profound.
Tammy Roth, M.Ed., LPC
Holistic Therapist, Author, and Retreat Facilitator