The Trauma behind the addiction.

It’s time to drop the stigma and view addiction through a compassionate lens.

Sam ColemanFeb 13 · 5 min read

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe that they can be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours.” Gabor Maté In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

The hungry ghost has it’s roots in Buddhism. It is a ghost with an endless gnawing emptiness inside. There is a need that can never be met and an intense dissatisfaction that can never be satisfied. To some extent, we all have an intense gnawing for more. But for people who have suffered trauma there is an endless dark cavern of a hole that can never be filled.

The word ‘addiction’ derives from the Latin word which means ‘enslaved to’. Anybody that has suffered with addiction will fully understand this.

You become a slave to the drug of your choice. It fills your thoughts and everything else fades into the background.

“Addiction is manifested in any behaviour that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up.” is how Dr Maté describes addiction. And addiction is not just limited to drugs and alcohol. We can be addicted to anything; shopping, sex, gambling or work.

Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Studies have shown that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) have been linked to substance misuse in adults. ACE’s are traumatic experiences in childhood that include physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental health issues in a parent and neglect. Stress and fear manifests in the body of children who have been abused and neglected, and that fear stays within the body. There are unregulated emotions, a sense of danger and threat. Misusing any substance is a way to self medicate from the feelings within the body.

In my work with addiction and trauma I have seen what trying to fill that empty gnawing pit left by childhood abuse can do to a person. Often, a survivor of trauma will turn to substance misuse to numb the pain and to try to fill what is missing; love and acceptance.

There is a lack of connection, a lost soul with no sense of belonging anywhere. And, as a society, we make that worse. There will be judgement passed, a lack of understanding and total ignorance for what this person may have gone through.


It is the shame, unworthiness and a sense of not belonging that victims want to escape from. They are isolated from the norms of society, often suffer with mental health issues, and often have very little family support.

The shame of what has been done to them in childhood, and how they feel; that somehow they were to blame for the life that they were given is what they are trying to escape from. Not only that, this is also combined with a sense of shame for their need for the substance; trying to fill that hollow space. I’ve had people say to me, “I’m nothing. A waste of space. I’m worthy of nothing.”

Secrecy that surrounds addiction as well as childhood abuse often fuels that shame. Self condemnation, self judgement and a feeling of being unworthy keeps them in this horrendous cycle.

“We need to talk about what drives people to do drugs,” trauma researcher Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk has said. “People who feel good about themselves don’t do things that endanger their bodies…..Traumatised people feel agitated, restless, tight in the chest. You hate the way you feel.” People that misuse substances are trying to self medicate, to regulate their emotions themselves as well as hide away from what they feel.

The brain.

When we feel pleasure, the brain releases dopamine. It doesn’t matter how we get that pleasure, whether it’s natural or chemical, the process is still the same. However, addictive drugs will cause a powerful, quick release, surge of dopamine. Over time, the constant flooding of dopamine means the brain adapts to make the pleasure we feel from taking drugs, feel less pleasurable. This adaptation means that the dopamine hit no longer feels as good…neither does the drug; think how we are constantly chasing that first high.

In his book, In the Realm of Hungry ghosts, Dr Maté writes that addiction “originates in a human being’s desperate attempt to solve a problem: the problem of emotional pain, of overwhelming stress, of lost connection, of loss of control, of a deep discomfort with the self.”

Why does addiction have such stigma attached to it? Knowing that, for many who are addicted that they are truly suffering. Suffering to the point that they wish to destroy their bodies, mind and lives. Why does society treat them as outcasts? Why are we not providing more help? When you look into the eyes of someone who has who has suffered their whole lives, how can there be blame aimed towards that person?

Compassion and healing.

Healing is a long difficult process. Trauma survivors and substance misusers often do not have any idea about how being kind to themselves might feel. They have no understanding of self compassion. How could they when they have never been shown kindness or compassion, either growing up or later.

People who are addicted to substances will have no idea what it feels like to relax naturally, to breathe, to feel normal emotions. They have become distanced from their bodies.

The first painful step to the long road of healing from trauma and being free from addiction is to begin to notice; notice the breath, notice the body, notice sensations. If we can notice the triggers that drive us to our addictions we can begin to break the cycle.

There will be a turning away. Trauma survivors will not want to breathe deeply, to relax or even close their eyes; it feels too dangerous. A gentle approach, showing empathy and compassion can allow the person to feel held in the therapeutic relationship.

Simply getting in touch with and naming emotions that arise can be a huge step forward. A focus of healing shame by telling their story and a process of understanding their own story can be the start. This gives them a chance to write their story and to be free of the shame.

We are trying to free the person from the hungry ghost. We are trying to fill them with love, understanding and compassion.

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