Addiction, Trauma, and Codependency

"You are not responsible for being down, but you have to take responsibility for getting yourself back up." - Jesse Jackson

I began my work specializing in treating trauma, but soon found that trauma and addiction are a bit like peanut butter and jelly - they often go together. An addiction may be to drugs or alcohol, or it may be an addiction to a behavior, like compulsive shopping or gambling or an eating disorder. In the case of codependency, the addiction is to an unhealthy relationship or an unhealthy pattern in relationships.

Addiction and trauma often form a "feedback loop." A person may experience trauma, then develop an addiction as one way of trying to cope. The addiction may lead to that person being in unsafe or unhealthy situations, which can lead to additional trauma and begins the cycle all over again. This cycle can happen not only to individual people but to families as well. When this cycle happens in families, it can continue over many generations. People who want to "break the cycle" of addiction and abuse within a family that is stuck in this cycle will need to find support outside of their family in order to do so.

For working with both trauma and addiction, the key is to shift the "old tapes" of feelings, thoughts and impulses that got locked into place during an intense experience. These "tapes" or "bubbles" (neural pathways) continue to replay themselves in ways that often feel out of control. Because the old tapes seem to have a life of their own, they may feel like they exist in a bubble that is separate from the rest of you. (This is because of where they are being stored in the brain). Techniques like EMDR and psychodrama are "power tools" because they can access the "master copy of the tape" (the full neural pathway) where the original feelings, thoughts, impulses, and sensations are stored. Once you can access it, you can change how the memory is stored in your brain, reduce or eliminate it's "charge," and make new choices about how to respond in the here and now.

For PTSD, the memory is stored in a "trauma bubble."* For addiction, the memory is stored in a "feeling state bubble." Many people have more than one "bubble," including some bubbles connected with trauma and some with addiction. Here is a summary of what makes up the two kinds of bubbles:

*The term "trauma bubble" was coined by psychodramatist Kate Hudgens.

The concept of “feeling states” and using feeling states with EMDR to treat addictions and compulsions was developed by Robert Miller, Ph.D.

Comparison chart created by Kathy Campbell, MFT.


Created by an event that was overwhelming, threatened physical or psychological annihilation, and/or resulted in feelings of fear, horror, or helplessness
Created by an event that felt intensely positive, in part because it temporarily seemed to fill a need for belonging, self-esteem, or power; or because it was paired with a euphoric state

Sensory input connected to the traumatic experience:
sight, sound, smell, taste, touch
Sensory input connected to the intensely positive experience:
sight, sound, smell, taste, touch


fear, anger, grief, shame, etc.
joy, excitement, fear, anger, shame, etc. Also, any "negative" emotion TEMPORARILY changing to relief, distraction, numbness, or comfort

Motor impulses:

fight, flight, freeze, collapse, or fuse (fuse is the instinct to bond with another human being when in danger, even if the only other human being available is harming you.)
Motor activities: the behavior that you engaged in when you were having that first intensely positive event. This includes whatever part of it you experienced as the most intensely positive, either leading up to the event, during it, or afterward

Thoughts, messages, and "snap judgments" (negative thoughts, especially about self):

Safety vs. vulnerability ("I am unsafe / I'm still in danger")

Responsibility: I DID something wrong ("It's my fault")

Responsibility / self worth: I AM something wrong ("I am bad / unlovable / worthless/ undeserving")

Control / choice / agency ("I am powerless")

Thoughts, messages, and "snap judgments" ("false positive" thoughts) about seeming to have met the need for:

Nurturance/connection/belonging ("I belong, I am loved/cared for, I am connected to my friends/family")

Self-esteem / positive self-regard/self-worth ("I am creative, I am worthwhile, I am respected/admired/recognized")

Power/agency/efficacy ("I can do what I want, I am in control, I am free, I fooled them!")


Temporarily creating a chemical euphoric state (which the brain will stop producing after the first few times. All of the remaining efforts to recapture the euphoria are "chasing the dragon"). These include:

Substance-induced euphoria

Sexual excitement PAIRED with another (usually negative) emotion, such as humiliation, fear, anger, helplessness. Sexual excitement ALONE (not paired with another emotion) is NEVER the underlying feeling state.

For both trauma and addiction, therapy consists of three phases:

1) Building strengths, skills, and resources

2) Reprocessing the "bubbles" of trauma, addiction, or both
3) Reconnecting with yourself and others (and if you have a spiritual path, with your spiritual path) in a new way

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