Trauma, Addiction and Rhythmic Movement Training
Don’t ask “what’s wrong with you?”, ask “what happened to you?”
We live in a traumatised society. Historically we have considered trauma to be experienced
by people at war or some terrible tragedy, however with the splintering of society we see the effects of trauma have a much broader base. The increase is multifactorial, we now understand about epigenetics and how trauma is passed down from generation to generation, we have a better appreciation of how birth trauma can have life long effects, how the stress hormone, cortisol, can be conveyed to the developing baby through the placenta, the devastating impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences, and now how all of these factors affect the structure and function of the developing brain. Similarly traumatic events in adulthood can affect the physiological structure of the brain.
Trauma has been known to alter the structure and function of the brain, it makes us more susceptible to stress and less able to cope in stressful situations. It reduces the number of dopamine and opioid receptors in the brain so that we are less able to access the reward and motivation neurotransmitters that allows to create strong healthy connections with other people and build healthy relationships and successful lives. This is what can lead to an addictive state. Drugs or behaviours that increase dopamine and endorphin levels will flood the brain with what it needs - the reward, but the reduced number of receptors prevent any sense of satisfaction, so the behaviour is briefly rewarding at the time but leaves a sense of emptiness afterwards, thus creating a desire to repeat the behaviour. The flood of dopamine will then reduce the number of dopamine receptors as the brain tries to find balance and so tolerance and increasing doses of drugs or more intense behaviours ensues to try and regain a sense of satisfaction.
This process happens in the limbic or emotional part of the brain. It also disconnects the pre-frontal cortex or thinking and decision making part of the brain. When trauma affected people with addictions have no control over their behaviour or make poor decisions or are unable to motivate themselves to change, this is precisely why. Much as if someone has had a leg amputated, we wouldn’t expect them to run a marathon, people who have been through trauma do not have the correct brain physiology in place to be able to function as logically as those who have not and yet we expect them to.
Trauma creates a hyper vigilant limbic system, the emotional part of the brain located in the middle of the brain. Part of it - the amygdala, acts as a guardian of our fight/flight system. In trauma affected people it stays on constant red alert, always ready for an attack. This creates high levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This is where addiction can give relief, alcohol, drugs or distracting behaviours calm down the amygdala response, allowing the person respite from the constant feeling of potential attack. However, when it wears off the amygdala will switch back into hyper vigilance, jolting back into the feeling of impending disaster. It makes us more responsive to the stress hormone cortisol, so that there are chronically higher levels circulating in our blood stream. Particularly in people suffering from PTSD
According to Gabor Maté, addiction is characterised by repeated behaviour that a person feels compelled to persist with, regardless of its negative impact on themselves or others. Addictions are typified by; compulsion, preoccupation, impaired control, relapse and craving. We tend to focus on substance abuse but the same pattern is exhibited in behavioural addictions and we all fall prey to addictions to a greater or lesser extent. When our behaviour becomes compulsive rather than logical - eating a whole bar of chocolate, binge watching a box set instead of going to bed or scrolling through social media, we are in the grip of low level addictive behaviour. Some addictions are socially acceptable and rewarded, such as compulsively working, some are utterly condemned such as substance abuse. However, they all have the same root, in trauma that has remodelled our brains, and they all have the same function, to try and ease the emotional discomfort from an inability to create connection or to temporarily relieve the stress caused by a hyper vigilant limbic system.
Withdrawal also follows a similar pattern, whether from substance abuse or behavioural addictions (taking aside chemical dependency issues), irritability, depression, restlessness and a sense of aimlessness and ennui follow on from stopping the behaviour. Motivation is lost and the drive that would normally be present in unaffected people is missing. The urge to relapse can be overwhelming and without good support almost inevitable. As noted above, the parts of the brain that allow us to make good decisions are disconnected and the brain’s need for dopamine to just ‘feel normal’ and reduce the stress response from the limbic system is paramount.
We also now know with some certainty that addiction is not inherited, it is not a genetic condition and there is strong evidence that it is the early, even pre-birth, environment, and the trauma that could be endured in living with an addicted parent that predisposes to addiction. The inherited link comes more from personality that will produce a greater susceptibility. Genetic links can only come from environmental stimuli that will turn genes on or off, a loving supportive home can predispose to strong attachments and good relationships, trauma can predispose to poor attachments, poor relationships and a greater risk of addiction to fill that gap. Drugs themselves are not intrinsically addictive, it takes the susceptibility of the user to create an addiction, as seen in Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park experiment or in the returning servicemen from Vietnam. Addiction however, is different to chemical dependency.
Trauma is a whole body physiological problem which causes other physical issues as well as the damage to the brain that we’ve discussed here. When a traumatic event happens or a traumatic situation is unable to be resolved, the body’s fight/flight system is activated but not able to fulfil its process. This is where trauma becomes somatised into the body and the brain and body are subjected to injury in trying to deal with the response.
So what can we do? Hopefully we are moving beyond the era of pointing the finger at addicts and blaming them for their inability to function as expected. We need to look at addressing trauma, which is at the root of the problem.. There has been much work in the treatment of trauma in recent years, particularly the work of Peter Levine and Bessel Van Der Valk, there is a growing understanding that trauma does not always respond well to talking therapies because of the continual re-traumatising, or to medication. Therefore the most successful treatments for trauma are physical. Research has shown that yoga three times per week is a hugely effective treatment that works curatively. A full yoga session will also include a period of meditation and research shows that meditation grows the limbic system particularly. Other physical therapies such as Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing have also shown good results.
Which leads us to Rhythmic Movement Training (RMTi). Using simple floor based rocking movements that replicate the earliest stages of infant development, both pre and post natal, the brain gets a second chance at building the connections that it missed. RMTi will also integrate retained primitive reflexes which can also interfere with neurological development. Where there is trauma during pregnancy or during or immediately after birth, then fear reflexes can be retained. These will keep the central nervous system in red alert and set up all the issues and damage discussed above. Using RMTi specific rhythmic rocking movements and other techniques specific to this earliest stage in development, the effects of trauma can be resolved and new neural connections can establish between the survival part of the hind brain, the emotional part of the limbic system and forward to the logical, decision making part of the pre-frontal cortex. These improved connections will ease anxiety, improve the ability to form good personal relationships and improve decision making, motivation, focus and concentration.
Rhythmic Movement Training has the potential to be an effective complement to any other treatment for trauma affected and addicted people. Particularly when we remember to ask what happened, not what’s wrong.