Helping Clients with Substance Abuse Disorder Heal Trauma [Guest Feature]

If you or someone you love overuses alcohol or drugs, emotional trauma may be an underlying factor. About 5.2 million Americans experience some form of trauma each year[i]. Emotional trauma is exposure to a deeply distressing event that invokes feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.

About 50% of women and 60% of men will experience at least one trauma in their lives [ii]. Children are even more vulnerable to trauma, with 75% experiencing a traumatic event before the age of sixteen[iii]. Common examples of emotional trauma include childhood physical or sexual abuse, neglect, verbal humiliation, threats, incarceration, and combat exposure.

Children who experience abuse typically do not have the coping skills to process it. They may seek comfort and safety from a parent. If the parent is the abuser, or emotionally unavailable, it is likely that the unprocessed abuse can develop into emotional trauma. Stored trauma can manifest in symptoms such as:

  • Intense fear or avoidance of a situation that may invoke similar feelings that occurred during the initial traumatic event.
  • Denial that the trauma happened, as a coping technique
  • Feeling ‘stuck’ in a loop of emotional turmoil due to the inability to process or resolve the trauma.
  • Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or distressing dreams of scenes that invoke feelings of fear, or helplessness.
  • Overuse of alcohol, drugs or unhealthy habits to get relief from post-trauma symptoms.

Research confirms that the more trauma you are exposed to, the more vulnerable you become to developing an addiction. Addiction is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward or relief by substance use and other compulsive behaviors[iv].

We can see that various addictions are on the rise in the U.S. About 30% of Americans overuse alcohol or suffer from alcoholism[v]. Illegal drug use is on the rise, with 18.9 million Americans smoking marijuana in 2012, compared to 14.4 million in 2007[vi]. Prescription drug use has also increased, with 2.4 million Americans taking prescription medications for non-medical purposes[vii].

When clinically treating people who overuse drugs and alcohol, it is important to assess for trauma and abuse, since these substances are often used to cope or medicate from emotional discomfort resulting from traumatic, unprocessed experiences.

As a counselor, I treat many clients who have a trauma history as well as a substance use disorder. If a client shares their trauma memories with me, I let them know that our essential nature as human beings allows us the ability to reprocess and heal the way we deal with painful memories.

One treatment that I have found to be effective in helping clients heal trauma is a technique I call Frame-by-Frame Technique. I created this technique based on the principles of Guided Imagery[viii]. This technique allows trauma victims to reprocess the event while in a semi-conscious state of mind, desensitizing them to the intense emotions that were brought on during the initial traumatic experience. A semiconscious state of mind is a state between awake and sleep. I help the client achieve this state by teaching them a ‘sleep breathing’ technique which decreases their heart rate, lowers their blood pressure and calms and quiets their mind. Sleep breathing is done by closing your eyes and focusing on how your body breathes all by itself, without any assistance from you. This tricks your body into thinking you are going to sleep, while your mind is alert.

I only use the Frame-by-Frame Technique with clients who give me permission, after I have fully explained the technique. I let the client know that trauma memories are stored in the brain and can be retrieved. I ask the client to imagine that they own remote control to their stored memories. On the remote control, there is a play button, a pause button, a stop button, and an edit button that they can access any time the memory is brought up. I explain that in order to heal a trauma memory any emotional intensity attached to the memory must not impede their ability to problem solve or use clear judgment. This is done by using the ‘sleep breathing’ technique, which decreases emotional intensity.

I ask the client to tell me, scene by scene, about the traumatic event in this semiconscious state. I monitor their breathing, as I listen to them recall the traumatic experience. If their breathing becomes rapid, or they move out of a relaxed state, I ask them to imagine using the pause button for a moment on their remote and imagine seeing the scene as a still frame. I tell them, “You are the editor of this scene. Is there anything you would like to bring into this scene that would comfort you or strengthen your capacity to handle what is going on?” Often clients will tell me they want to bring in protection or help. I ask them to image editing in that protection or help until they feel protected or able to handle what is going on in the trauma scene.

The Frame-by-Frame Technique is effective because it allows clients to reprocess the trauma memory, decreasing the powerlessness experienced during the original trauma. If their mind recalls the traumatic event, they can access their new edited version of the memory, empowering them to feel safe and protected, decreasing their feelings of helplessness to cope.

For clients who are uncomfortable with this technique, I offer healthy self-soothing strategies to induce emotional wellbeing, such as:

  • Gentle self-talk
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Nature walks where the client can focus on the beauty around them
  • Counseling
  • Connecting with a loving support system
  • Reading something inspirational
  • Listening to calming music
  • Creating something artistic
  • Journaling their feelings to express internal thoughts out onto paper

Self-care and soothing are key skills to healing emotional trauma and becoming mentally healthy. Offering nurturing words or a nurturing touch can also be soothing to a person who has experienced trauma. Most important is the reminder that healing and recovery are always available to those who seek it.

Written by Elisabeth Davies, MC

Counselor and Author of Good Things Emotional Healing Journal: Addiction



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