Stress is a natural physical response to a perceived threat. But, a brain changed by crisis can misread stressful situations and respond poorly. Crises may be one-time events, like a natural disaster or a catastrophic car accident. Or, crises may recur over time. Examples of recurrent crises include living in a substance-affected home or a racist environment. A brain injured by one or more crises is said to be traumatized. In behavioral health, trauma is a psychological reaction to a stressful event that reduces how a person or system functions in everyday stressful situations.
A crisis survivor with a traumatized brain may feel helpless and unsafe when under stress. They can develop unhealthy habits to soothe their discomfort. Too often, traumatized people use alcohol, drugs, crime, violence, gambling, sex, or spending to feel comfortable. Dr. Daniel Sumrok calls these habits “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking”.
While it might help fast, ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking is less helpful in the long-term. These habits can create shame and separation from the people most able to help with healing. Reliance on dysfunctional self-soothing behaviors leads to never-ending cycles of comfort-seeking and regret. The question directed at people seeking solace is often, “what is wrong with you?”
Yet, as the links between trauma and substance use become clearer, new ideas come forward. One idea spreading in the addiction treatment field is Trauma-Informed Care (TIC). TIC steps back to change the question to, “what happened to you?”. This change shifts the focus of treatment from simple abstinence to healing. TIC is not a new idea. It is a common thought that when someone stops using, they will have address the problem that led to their using.
TIC shifts responsibility for the original hurt to where it belongs, with the cause of the crisis. No longer is the survivor the cause of the crisis–as they often believe. Instead, survivors can shift their efforts from soothing to healing.
The Science of TIC
Exposure to traumatic events is near-universal. In one study, 90% of people reported having one or more distressing encounters in their lifetime. Survey respondents reported that they lived through disasters, accidents and fires, hazardous chemicals, combat and warzones, physical or sexual assault, unexpected dead bodies and body parts, threat or injury to a family member or close friend, sudden violent death of a family member or close friend. These events happened at work or in the community. Kilpatrick and associates (2013) also found that 8.3% of people will develop PTSD in their lifetime.
In the late 1990s, the health insurance company Kaiser Permanente partnered with the Centers for Disease Control to survey a broad group of insured persons in Southern California. This study is known as the Adverse Childhood Events Study (ACEs). It was the first study to document the connection between events at home and physical and emotional illness later in life. The researchers found that “almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.” These findings underscore the causal relationship between trauma and lifetime pain.
Trauma-informed environments stand on the realization that trauma affects almost everyone. So that, when we, clinicians and concerned significant others, recognize the signs of trauma, we can respond safely and compassionately to resist re-traumatizing people. The Centers for Disease Control shared some principles of trauma-informed care. They are (1) safety, (2) trustworthiness and transparency, (3) peer support, (4) collaboration and mutuality, (5) empowerment and choice, and (6) recognition of cultural, historical and gender issues.
TIC in Action
Cox Family Wellness Systems uses a trauma-informed stress-coping model of addiction. This TI model recognizes that many using triggers arise from chaos, stigma, and fear. It also recognizes that many coping skills grow from survival and protection in the face of those triggers.
At Cox Family Wellness Systems, we understand that past hurts can affect current behavior. We also believe in the power of resilience and self-compassion to change current habits and heal past injuries.
Our services are trauma-informed. We use mindful practices and self-compassion for healing. We believe in client-centered, strength-based assessments and treatment goals. Our strategies involve rewarding folks for a job well-done.
Let us know how we can support you and your family.