What is it about trauma that can have such a seductive pull? Can our bodies actually become addicted to trauma and its effect on us?
As horrific as the trauma exposures of war can be for many combat veterans, many actually long to go back after they are safe at home. In his article “Why Soldiers Miss War” Nolan Peterson explains that many combat veterans’ worst and best life experiences often occurred during combat (1). While in combat, they long for peace and reuniting with their families, but they often experience a void in their lives when they are finally home.
Bessel van der Kolk also found many survivors of past trauma often went back to risky environments or abusive relationships even after making significant progress in therapy (2).
For those without trauma exposure, this desire may be hard to understand.
Once again, hormones likely are at play in this puzzling circumstance. One more hormone, in particular, might provide a further understanding of this seductive effect. In addition to the fight or flight hormone response of adrenaline and cortisol, endorphins also play an important role in trauma exposure.
Endorphins are released during prolonged trauma exposure. Ironically, endorphins are often referred to as one of the “happy hormones”. While other “happy hormones” manipulate the body’s pleasure and reward system, endorphins act differently. Endorphins actually impact the body by blocking pain.
Feeling No Pain
In a study with combat veterans, van der Kolk found that even watching a violent movie for 15 minutes was enough to trigger the release of endorphins. This release of endorphins caused a 30% increase in pain tolerance levels in the participants (2).
What was most shocking about this study was the number of endorphins that flooded the body in those 15 minutes. This endorphin flood was equivalent to injecting the body with 8 milligrams of morphine. For reference, the Mayo Clinic typically advises 1 – 5 milligrams of morphine be administered to those suffering from severe pain.
Addicted to Trauma
What causes the trauma addiction? Highly addictive opioids like morphine and heroin impact the body by mimicking the natural effects of endorphins. Fortunately, the endorphins that are released during trauma exposure do not typically saturate the brain’s pleasure and reward system to the level that occurs with opioids. With that said, endorphins are powerful natural pain relievers.
For those that are experiencing chronic physical or emotional pain, endorphins can provide a very attractive release. When this release is the only escape from the pain, our bodies will naturally crave more.
Another addictive chemical release that can occur during trauma exposure is dopamine. Unlike endorphins, this chemical has a direct impact on the body’s pleasure and reward system. Dopamine release is most common in trauma exposures that involve power or victory over others.
When combining endorphins pain-numbing effects, dopamine’s direct reward system impact, and the adrenaline rush, it becomes apparent why the body would crave this potent neurochemical cocktail. It’s understandable how someone may return to an environment that was a source of trauma.
When you review the research on the hormone responses in trauma exposures, it becomes clearer why certain behaviors occur, even in the workplace. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the challenges those with trauma exposures are experiencing. The last step as trauma-informed leaders will be to learn some practical tools to navigate these challenges.
In the next article, we will finally look at a trauma-informed leader’s tools and investigate ways to develop a trauma-informed culture in the workplace.
Previous in the series: Fight or Flight Hormone Response
Next in the series: Building a Trauma-Informed Culture
2 – van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.