Trauma and addiction are nearly always found together, and here’s why. I am asked repeatedly if I believe that marijuana is a gateway drug to the usage of far more dangerous and deadly drugs with much more potential towards addiction, and there is never a simple answer to that, says recovery and trauma expert Robb Kelly. Marijuana is used by a person with an addictive brain or a person with a genetic predisposition towards
alcoholism can become a gateway; but for people without those traits, marijuana can be innocuous. The only thing that I have found to truly be a gateway to addiction is trauma. Every single person I have ever treated with a substance abuse disorder has underlying trauma.

What is the definition trauma

The definition of trauma is a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. There are a few broad categories that easily fit this definition such as experiencing war, surviving an airplane crash, or being a victim of physical or sexual abuse but trauma is much more insidious. Trauma is individually subjective: what hurts you emotionally is not the same thing that hurts me emotionally. Trauma is anything that disrupts our sense of safety. One of the brain’s jobs is to find the best solution to protect us, but the brain doesn’t know the difference between a healthy solution and an unhealthy one.

Trauma and addiction can happen like this

A critical parenting style, bullying, emotional abandonment, marital discord, and other forms of family dysfunction can cause the same affect in the brain as being shot at in a war zone. The brain cannot tell
the difference between a war in Afghanistan and a war in the home. Even seemingly minor events such as ridiculing (even if it is only meant in jest) can cause long lasting trauma which will carry over to adulthood. When trauma is not resolved in childhood it is carried over into adulthood which then sets up a situation for more trauma to occur. You have probably heard about little “t” and big “T” in the recovery world; I categorically believe through my research that with the addicted brain there is no such thing a as a little “t.”

To the human brain all emotional pain can be lasting trauma

An obsessive brain will focus on a small negative experience and make it a big negative experience. To the brain, it is trauma, period. Trauma affects us psychologically, cognitively, behaviorally, and physiologically. It has a direct effect on a person’s ability to lead a normal and satisfying quality of life. Fascinating fact about animals; if a deer gets clipped by a passing car but does not die, it will stay down for a minute then arise standing on all fours. What happens next is especially important. The next move is to shake violently for a few
seconds, then carry on with the day without a thought about what just happened. When the deer shakes violently it is shaking off the trauma from the car hitting him.

Unlike animals, humans keep their emotional pain

Humans don’t shake off negative experiences. We store up for weeks, months and even years our
emotional pains which distort our thought patterns and batter our central nervous system. This is important for a discussion on addiction because drugs and alcohol are a solution of protection. We drink or we use drugs, and the central nervous system calms down and that creates a neuropathway in the brain that if used repeatedly as a coping mechanism becomes an addiction.

Trauma and addiction are now hot subjects of research

Research on the role of trauma in addiction is what I consider to be in its infancy. Addiction has been around for
centuries but up until the past 50 years, it was considered in moral or behavioral failings versus a medical condition requiring medical intervention. Trauma makes it difficult to cope and can lead to many sorts of unhealthy coping mechanisms, but drugs and alcohol are an easy fix in numbing the emotions. Once
a person crosses over from self-medication to addiction, they run the risk of never learning to deal with the underlying emotions. It is imperative in addiction recovery that underlying trauma be brought to light and worked through. I call it “returning to the scene of the crime.” When I start working with a person on their recovery, the first thing I ask them is what their childhood experience was like and have they experienced any major
trauma. It may not even be apparent to the patient that they have this trauma holding them back. It is imperative that underlying trauma be addressed as part of the recovery process to not do so is almost guaranteeing relapses. Trauma likes to hide in our subconscious creating havoc in our lives as it pleases.


The debate about marijuana will no doubt rage on and maybe it is an important consideration as more states consider legalizing it for recreational usage. I have come across no one in my twenty plus years of practice who became a full-blown addict through the use of marijuana on its own, but I see the effects of trauma in every single person that I have met with an addictive disorder. I believe that is where our research and new treatment methods should be focused

By Robb Kelly PhD. Robb Kelly, PhD has been working with addicts and alcoholics over the last 20 years. He was tired of seeing addicts and alcoholics going in and out of treatment programs – remaining sober for a short period of time and then relapsing. He knows the current treatment model is broke and it doesn’t work. Recovery Coaching offers an alternative to traditional treatment for those who desperately want to recover.


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