This is a question emailed to me this morning…..Let’s “unwrap” the question……
Experiencing trauma creates anxiety and depression for many people that ranges from severe and seemingly unmanageable to plain old challenging. Regardless, your day-to-day life can feel thrown off track. When intense and negative feelings don’t calm down, your brain searches for something that will help — to create a calming, settling effect. Consequently each person has to look to see what is “on file” in their history/experience because your brain, your mind, your body, your emotions will be drawn to what you’ve done in the past. Many people, unless they have medical or spiritual reasons for objecting, would suggest a “stiff drink” to help after the immediate impact of trauma. Others would reach for medications or drugs or possibly find them selves out of control with food. Still others will go out for a run or some other form of exercise. And some would meditate or do relaxation exercises. Most of us do what has worked before.
So back to the question. If you use something like alcohol or food to “self-soothe” once in a while, it is likely to be a coping mechanism that won’t get you into dangerous territory. The addiction comes not from the actual trauma, but from regular repetition of the behavior or selected substance you’ve decided helps you MANAGE the trauma. Let’s take alcohol. If you begin to drink regularly to calm yourself and it feels like it works, you are motivated to repeat the behavior. Gradually the couple of drinks you’ve been having fail to continue working, and you discover you need more to get the same effect. Slowly, as you increase your intake, you don’t feel good in general without the amount of alcohol you are using. A choice for temporary coping becomes habitual, and can eventually become addictive. Stopping using the alcohol (or other coping behavior) causes anxiety or depression to intensify again. And actually, the anxiety or depression has not gone away — it’s hiding/lurking right underneath the addictive behavior…. so when the feelings push to the surface again, you have even more motivation for repeating the behavior …addiction has locked in.
If you’ve experienced trouble sleeping following trauma, it is tempting to reach for sleeping medication. Hopefully you have all seen the recent AMBIEN ALERTS. That medication should be used only sparingly and very short term. Additionally, it is more dangerous for women. Anti-anxiety meds are also tempting. Again, short term! What has to eventually happen is facing into the feelings and healing them — fear, anger, grief need to be FELT and processed. We need to learn to go into — through — and out the other side of those sometimes frightening feelings. Covering them up or “medicating” them often means they will surge forward again later. Unfortunately we are often fearful of feeling those deeper, unfamiliar feelings. Trust me — with the proper therapeutic support, you can discover that you can do it and end up feeling better than you ever have.
I know that is a stretch! So begin with choosing something that is really and truly healthy for you — to heal just one day at a time. Metabolize difficult feelings. You can do that with rigorous exercise — it flushes stress out of your system; with meditation — it helps you focus on NOW and teaches you to relax physically, mentally, emotionally — and for many, spiritually; with writing — grab a notebook and write, free form or in a form called stream of consciousness — everything you are thinking and feeling; and finally with talking — hearing yourself think out loud with someone who really listens — therapist, spiritual leader, mentor, caring family member or friend. All of these approaches keep negative feelings from building up inside you.
AND using healthy coping techniques eliminates the worry about addiction!