Addiction and our nervous system

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November 7, 2016
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November 21, 2016

Addiction and our nervous system

This week is a guest post from Tamara Roth, Clinical Director of women’s programming at JourneyPure At The River and an accomplished author of, “High Bottom – Letting Go of Vodka and Chardonnay”

When I was a young graduate student studying to be a therapist, never once was it mentioned that my clients would have brains and bodies.  Now as a seasoned clinician with a couple of decades of experience under my belt, having a client tune into their body and helping them understand how their brain works is one of my first steps in the therapeutic process.  With my focus being on addiction and trauma, it’s even more critical that this first step occurs.

The field of neuroscience is helping us to better understand one perspective of how addictive processes are started.  The main points that I teach clients are:

  • We come into the world with an innate biological need for attachment to our primary caregiver who makes us feel unconditionally loved, safe and comforted when a basic need arises.
  • These feelings are critical for healthy brain and nervous system development.  And;
  • When done right, we grow up feeling comfortable in our own skin: We are able to self regulate our emotions, we have healthy self esteem, and we aren’t constantly looking outside ourselves for inner security and validation.

However, If something goes awry in this area – such as a mentally or physically unhealthy parent, domestic violence, chronic stress, addiction in the home, or any form of emotional neglect – then we experience developmental trauma, which leads to the brain and nervous system not being able to self regulate or soothe on its own.

As we grow, if our environment doesn’t change for the better and we’re not getting the love, attention and boundaries that we need for healthy growth and development, then this leads to complex trauma with even more symptoms of dysregulation. Dysregulation of the nervous system can manifest in both emotional and physical symptoms.  Emotional symptoms include low self esteem, a vicious inner critic, social anxiety, and toxic shame.  Physical symptoms are often connected to the digestive tract, the immune system, or chronic pain.

The body and the nervous system want relief!  Therefore, it stays in a constant hypervigilant mode which keeps the most primitive part of our brains on alert for danger. It’s like having the volume on high all the time screaming “Danger, Danger, Danger!”   People and situations may feel threatening. The body tenses up, the emotions react in often inappropriate ways.  It’s a miserable feeling.

When we experience the effects of drugs or alcohol and the hypervigilance goes away (even if only temporarily), it is incredibly soothing, comforting, and such relief to finally have the volume turned down.  And, justifiably so, we return to the substance again and again.

In the beginning it’s perhaps an act of compassion for ourselves (albeit skewed) because we have found something that gives our aching spirit relief.  Unfortunately, however, it’s not true relief and it has severe life-threatening consequences that continue to injure our spirit even more.  While it may have been an act of compassion in the beginning, it’s not a sustainable way of bringing relief to the body and mind.

But thankfully there is a way to find true, lasting and sustainable relief.  It is through the process of recovery – healing the nervous system, retraining the brain, and finding connection in community – that we learn to live, act and feel like we never have before.  True recovery is a holistic process and requires equal participation of the mind, body and spirit. The results are exponentially profound.

Learning to have compassion for ourselves and connecting with others rather than isolating are two of the most important healing aspects of the recovery process.

Having self compassion has been scientifically proven to change brain chemistry and neural pathways.  By switching our thinking from fearful or self destructive thoughts, we shift out of the primal part of the brain called the amygdala to the more evolved part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex.  This shift from the primal part into the evolved provides more and more relief over time.

Similarly, by forming authentic and caring connections with others in recovery, we heal the right side of our brain.  Our right brain is abstract, creative and emotional, and it’s also responsible for human connection.

If we have developmental trauma, the right side of the brain does not function as effectively as the left.  True intimacy and connection in relationships is impaired, as well as being able to regulate emotions effectively.  This is why it seldom works for an individual to recover from drug or alcohol addiction on their own.  Reading books and having strong discipline are not going to help the right brain.  Relational connection, creativity, spirituality and abstract thinking all live in the right side of the brain.  These aspects are critical for true recovery to occur.

Fortunately, the brain has neuroplasticity which means we can change our brain function, create new neuropathways, and heal our life. Intense treatment and 12 step meetings are the perfect salve to the under-utilized right brain that is in need of healing and connection.  Talking, listening, empathizing, being heard, and ultimately being vulnerable and emotionally available are where the deep healing occurs in recovery.  However, as alcoholics and addicts, our natural tendency is to withdraw and isolate, so human connection and compassion are paramount in the healing process.  These are ways in which we must strive to retrain the brain.

Tamara Roth is a licensed professional counselor.  She earned two master’s degrees from Vanderbilt University and a PhD from American Institute of Holistic Theology.  She is a trained neurofeedback provider, EMDR practitioner, kundalini yoga instructor, and has extensive training in dreamwork.  For the past 17 years, Tamara has focused on holistic healing with an emphasis on women’s issues, addiction and trauma.  She authored “High Bottom – Letting Go of Vodka and Chardonnay,” which was published in 2014.  You can find her



  1. Linda Cox says:

    Important information regarding Neuroscience and addictions! However, somewhat “parent blaming” tone to this article! As a parent of a daughter who is has a co-morbid Bipolar Disorder and had a very secure attachment during infancy and childhood; these statements regarding “insecure” attachment were distressing. Chronic mental illness also contributes to emotion dysregulation as well

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