In Bessel van der Kolk’s latest masterpiece, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma he writes about a study specific to traumatic memory that I believe has significant implications for those who struggle with addiction. The study takes us into the science of repressed memory, and helps prove that often traumatic events from the past that fuel present addictive behavior, cannot be remembered.
Study on Women’s Memory of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Back in the early 1970s, Dr. Linda Meyer Williams was a graduate student studying sexual abuse. She interviewed 206 girls (ages 10 to 12) who had been admitted to a hospital following a sexual abuse incident. She also interviewed the parents, confirmed lab tests, and made sure that all the information was meticulously recorded in the medical record.
Then, 17 years later she tracked down 129 of the children and interviewed them again about their prior abuse experience to find out:
Do people actually forget traumatic events such as child sexual abuse, and if so, how common is such forgetting?
The outcome of the study: 38% did not recall being sexually abused. This study is just one among many that help us to understand that traumatic events are often completely forgotten. One reason is that when the events occur, they do not get recorded in the memory systems of the brain in the same way as other memories. They get recorded as dissociated fragments of experience and disconnected sensations in the body, thus a coherent story of the event simply does not exist in memory.
Traumatic Events and Addiction
Fast forward years later. You seek treatment for drinking, drugging, gambling, or perhaps acting out sexually or with food, and the interventions you receive focus on helping you develop a recovery lifestyle. But how successful are your efforts to abstain following treatment, when the flame that fuels your addiction is not even known?
To successfully overcome addiction most often requires some work on resolving past traumatic events, even when such experiences are foggy or forgotten. Fortunately, it’s not absolutely necessary that trauma be fully remembered to treat it and remove its influence on addictive behavior. But – and this is a big but – to treat trauma requires more than talk therapy. It requires an approach that involves the body, emotions, and integrating the head and the heart. And it requires patience, safety, and in most cases help from a trained clinician.
If you have been to treatment for addiction and continue to struggle, exploring the potential role of unresolved past traumatic events may be the missing key that allows you to permanently turn a corner on your addiction.
Nadia Gonzalez says
This comes as no surprise as my mother was sexually assaulted when she was younger. During the first half of my life my mother did not use drugs or alcohol. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that she began to use drugs and got hooked on to them. For two years she was heavily addicted to methamphetamine which caused her to lose custody of me and my other six siblings. Now that I’m an adult my mom talks to us about how she never remembered being sexually assaulted when she was younger but that she was. My grandma had try to figure out why mother had become an addict and she asked my mother if it was because she had been sexually assaulted. My mother says it was as if her body blocked out that memory, but soon after my grandma mentioned she started to put the pieces together and found the root of her problem. My mother believes greatly in God and her belief in him and with the help of her therapist she has managed to overcome her addiction.
Timothy Chu says
I found the outcome of the study very interesting. 38% is quite a large number of individuals who must’ve suppressed or forgotten their childhood sexual abuse completely. I know a couple of friends who suffered from sexual abuse as a child, but haven’t heard from them for years. I’ve always wondered whether or not they still remember or put those traumatic experiences far into the depths of their minds.
According to the APA, “experienced clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of a recovered memory is rare (e.g., one experienced practitioner reported having a recovered memory arise only once in 20 years of practice).” I believe that if someone had forgotten sexual abuse as a child then later recalled the event that it might be inaccurate or influenced by other factors.
Obviously for ethical reasons we can’t subject participants to a traumatic event to test their memory of it. Again, going back to the above point of how precise it could be even if they do remember. There definitely needs to be more research, because it’s unknown whether a memory of a traumatic event is encoded and stored differently from a non-traumatic event.
Joshua Rogers says
Hello Dr. Fitzgerald,
I found “When Unknown Traumatic Events Fuel Addiction” to be very interesting. I unfortunately have a relative who has been a victim of such an event. I am curious to know how outcomes change when the victim is older than twelve and younger than ten. I can guess that the older someone is the better they will comprehend and remember what has happened and therefore be more impinged by the event. However, given the clearer memory due to age, one could reflect more precisely during treatment and perhaps rehabilitate themselves accordingly. Perhaps when a victim is older the potential to be negatively affected is lower because of resolution?
I can also guess if one is younger, they are going to remember less. However, finding the source of the event is then less possible. In turn, is it harder for these victims to be treated? I am sure these answers are not cut and dry but I would appreciate some feedback. Thank you.
John Fitzgerald says
Actually Timothy, we do know that trauma gets coded differently than other non-traumatic memories. I would encourage you to check out Bessel van der Kolk’s latest book which details answers to your questions. Thanks for the comment.
Nichol Denison says
I appreciate when people look at healing through a holistic approach, addressing mind, body and soul. I would be curious of 129, how many struggled with addictions for unknown reasons. Also, the 38% that had no recollection of abuse, was their situation as physically or emotionally traumatic as the other participants when they were initially enrolled.
Did any of the 38% struggle with addiction? I know that muscles store memories even when they have been repressed. Some individuals have emotional releases during massage therapy, often unaware that it could be triggered through touch. What kinds of therapy are available to these patients whom need help going beyond talk therapy?
Jennifer Rosenau says
Thanks for your post relating trauma to addiction. I am taking a drug education class right now and have not heard the connection between addiction and past trauma. I have often often wondered if there was a connection between early childhood trauma and addiction. I have heard of repressed memories of traumatic events, but I didn’t know how common this was. The book you mentioned, The Body Keeps the Score, sounds like a great read. I work in mental health for a trauma informed organization where our interventions operate on the basis of trauma informed care. I am so surprised that 37% of the children in Dr. Linda Meyer Williams study did not remember the trauma 17 years later. This tells me that repressed memories are more common than I previously thought. When I am done with school maybe I will get a chance to read this book. Until then I have to read what they tell me.
John Fitzgerald says
Yes Jennifer, highly recommend you read Bessel’s book, the sooner the better if you work for a trauma informed organization!
John Fitzgerald says
Nichol, all good questions which is why I linked to the original article in the blog post that provides the details of the study.
John Fitzgerald says
Joshua, the study suggested that younger kids had poorer recollection of past trauma. While you would think that as one ages remembering trauma should become easier, it’s more complicated then that. The answer depends on many factors, but in brief, trauma impacts memory because by its nature it becomes fragmented in the head and heart, so a cohesive story of “what happened” evades those often seek help. The book – The body keeps the score – is a read I highly suggest if you are curious about this topic!
John Fitzgerald says
Nadia, thanks for the comment illustrating exactly what I was getting at in the post!
Suad M. says
This was such an enlightening post. It made me think of war trauma induced addictions. I’ve worked with an organization that targeted youth from specific communities that were externally displaced by war. We provided a safe space for these use to have a dialogue on where their sources of drug abuse/addiction came from. the consensus was that to numb the trauma they experienced from the wars that took place in their countries in order to adjust to the new culture of the current society they have been placed in.
John Fitzgerald says
Sounds like a great organization, thanks for the comment.
Isabelle Uwamahoro says
This article is very eye-opening! I agree that “often traumatic events from the past that fuel present addictive behavior, cannot be remembered” and I think this is an important aspect in treating addiction. People tend to develop strategies to cope with trauma and pain after they have experienced such an event. They tend not to talk about it or ignore it until they are much older. Personally, I have known a friend who was abused in her childhood and who has turned to alcohol after 20 years. She did not remember what happened then but she felt pain or emptiness. However, her addiction to alcohol did not start until she suffer a break-up (that sort of reinforced those negative feelings). It was only after years of therapy that she evoked her childhood experience and that she was able to heal completely.
Daniel Steckler says
This subject matter fascinates me. Some time ago I was fortunate to take an addiction counseling class that covered some brain science related to trauma from a counseling perspective. Our text for the class was “Being a Brain-wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology” by Bonnie Badenoch. The most relevant information to this topic was how the brain stores traumatic events, bringing forth the memory of the event during therapy, and re-storing it. It is believed that traumatic memory are stored attached to powerful emotions. When the client recalls the memory, the emotions come with it. At this point during the session, the counselor offers empathy and guidance in hopes to at least partially resolve the trauma. The memory is believed to be re-stored less traumatic than before. Recognizing body sensations as part of mindfulness technique is important when attempting to resolve emotional stress. Thank you for sharing this article. The information here is aligned with my own thoughts when approaching the addiction population.
Hi John- your blog is so interesting! Thank you for taking the time to offer such considerations for all of us involved in addiction.
The statistic provided is honestly somewhat frightening. I looked into the link you provided for the study and saw, “Women who were younger at the time of the abuse and those who were molested by someone they knew were more likely to have no recall of the abuse.” I was unable to purchase the article, so I could not read the implications of this. My first impression is that younger women store memories differently, and it makes sense that a memory from the age of 12 would be more clear than a memory from the age of 10. However, I wonder about why women are less likely to remember being molested by someone they knew.
I am curious what kind of correlations or relationships exist regarding men struggling with addiction. I’m not sure if you have any further information or studies (perhaps even on this site that I have not located yet) relating to men & addiction, I would love a link! Thanks!
John Fitzgerald says
Sydney, thanks for the feedback and comment. Among the best studies that speaks to your question between trauma and addiction from a broad sense is the ACE study. Also if you search under this term on my site you will additional posts.
John Fitzgerald says
Daniel, sounds like an interesting class! The therapy is actually a bit more complicated then your description, because the memories, emotions and body sensations are fragmented and disconnected in unique constellations for every client. Very often clients can recollect a traumatic memory, but do so disconnected from all emotion. A central goal of therapy is helping clients integrate the story and emotion in a safe way, which is easier said then done. I fully agree with the importance of mindfulness practice, self-awareness is key to recovery.
Appreciate the comment
Thanks for your presentation to our class the other day at PSU, it was truly a great contribution to our course curriculum. You are a very informative, insightful and easy-to-listen-to speaker, and I appreciated that you brought up not only the ACE study but also Forks Over Knives. I, too, am on a whole food, plant-based diet, and it has helped change my life and health for the better, that’s for certain.
This was an especially interesting blog post to me. I agree with its underlying sentiment and although I was surprised at how many people forgot that they had experienced sexual trauma, I can also understand and relate.
As a recovering addict with three years clean, and PTSD, I can attest to the fact that even today, my memories are hazy. As you wrote about memories of trauma: “They get recorded as dissociated fragments of experience and disconnected sensations in the body, thus a coherent story of the event simply does not exist in memory.” This is absolutely how many of my memories come back to me, in ways sometimes so cryptic my own mind can’t decipher them.
I’ve found that with the help of a counselor, an exercise regimen, spiritual practice and yoga, I can maintain a sense of mindfulness and safety, two things that are key to thriving in spite of great past trauma. I know I have found a greater sense of well-being and clarity by allowing myself to come back into my body and be present, so to speak, and so I totally agree that elements of trauma exist in the body and mind. I find myself more focused on what is in front of me, not behind me. Drugs seem to prevent people from moving forward with their lives. I know they kept me further suspending in my own pain and suffering, and I am so grateful that with the help of professionals, much like yourself, that I was able to move forward with my own life.
Maher Youssef says
Dear Dr. Fitzgerald,
With all earnestness, I enjoyed reading your blog and found it intellectually stimulating. What really stood out to me was the new treatment method. Unlike the traditional one, it makes more sense to dig deep down and find the root of the problem. However, since some victims do not recall the traumatic event, talk therapy alone would not be that effective as you mentioned. I learned from my anatomy and physiology class that it is not just psychological. In fact, the brain could experience physical changes if the individual gets exposed to extreme stress (such as sexual abuse). Unfortunately, the physical changes within the brain damages the limbic system (which is involved in our emotions and memory). As a result, what kinds of therapy do you recommend for an individual in this case? It fascinates me how much sophisticated and involved our brains are. I am also curious to know if therapists usually have to deal with “smelling sensations” as a form of treatment because for a lot of people, a particular aroma can be a strong trigger for memory.
John Fitzgerald says
Maher, appreciate much your comment. I always like to remember how elastic our brains really are, and though brain changes do occur with trauma, brains can also be healed when coupled with therapies that also engage the body. What therapies do I recommend? They are summarized very nicely by Bessel Van der Kolk in his lastest book The Body Keeps the Score.
John Fitzgerald says
Christi, we whole-food plant-based eaters need to stick together :) Thanks for the nice feedback and congrats on your clean time. I so appreciate your feedback about PTSD and you commenting on things that have helped you address it and evolve your life forward. Dealing with trauma is hard work, courageous work, and you should feel proud of your efforts.
Estela M. says
I found the outcome of the study interesting in that 38% of 129 women tracked down for childhood sexual abuse “did not recall being sexually abused.” Certainly, 38% of the sample are a significant number and I’d like to know, of the 38% of women who did not recall the incident, what percentage are suffering from a form of substance abuse. I also believe that in order to overcome addiction, one must first recall and overcome traumatic events. As the study suggests, addiction is often due to traumatic events, therefore, seeking treatment for solely addiction and not the root of the problem will not lead to recovery. From my personal experience working in a family practice that prescribed medications to treat opiate addiction, the success rate of overcoming addiction was higher among individuals who were engaged and constantly went to both their doctors appointments as well as their counselor. The providers acknowledged that treating the underlying issues of addiction were vital in overcoming addiction, therefore, would not refill the patient’s prescription if they missed an appointment with their counselor. Both the provider and counselors worked together, keeping constant communication regarding their patients. Unfortunately, many people who seek treatment for addiction find it difficult to overcome their problem due to the lack of knowledge or attention of past traumatic events, as you mentioned.
John Fitzgerald says
Estela, thanks for the feedback! I agree that the best outcomes emerge when those involved in care work together. Since primary care docs are the gatekeepers to our healthcare system, it makes good sense that they are on the team and working with counselors. Unfortunately, the gap between primary care medicine and behavioral health continues to be significant. Toss trauma into the mix and things become even more murky.
Haley Bell says
Like you stated, traumatic events fuel addiction, as well as other physical and phycological disorders. Events such as blackouts often occur in patients with a traumatic event in their past. I find it to be very interesting that confronting a traumatic event can help with phycological pain. One would think that trying to remember a painful event would make a situation worse, who would want to relive an event that they tried so hard to forget. But, repressing memories is a defense mechanism that can often lead to addiction. When confronting pain from the past, a patient can understand what happened and move on in most cases.
I was inspired to read this post, as I have been facing many traumas on my own road to developing a healthy lifestyle that does not involve using drugs to cope with my emotional symptoms. I was intrigued to read that “often traumatic events from the past that fuel present addictive behavior, cannot be remembered.” For me, the memories and traumas I have come in spurts; one day they will be more apparent, and during another period of time, they are absolutely debilitating.
Last year, when I turned 21, I developed a drinking problem. I was going to the bars daily as a treat for, well… having a day. It occurred to me around winter that family circumstances surrounding my stepmother were my main justification for drinking. She recently had legal situations and made life choices that left me to wonder where I stand as an individual. It felt like she didn’t put effort in to help me, or her, live happily. That being the case, it seemed like a fair justification that I should drink to excess and ruin my life, too. I recall reading about the “ACE” study on your blog, and that also helped me evaluate some of the reasons I, or my peers who use, might have so much trouble thriving on their own.
Many people go on for years using maladaptive coping mechanisms to get through life and eventually, as the last paragraph states, someone working toward their recovery knows little about where to begin. “The flame that fuels the addiction,” is an interesting way to put it. Everyone has their story and traumas to overcome. After so many years of covering up one’s problems, that direction probably becomes more ambiguous in the mind. I like that you concluded with the statement that more than talk therapy is required to help the addict. I find that I get frustrated with counselors because mental rerouting and advice usually clashes with my desire to flaunt how much I know. I will take your words with a grain of salt and try to incorporate the multiple powers of my “self” into my desire to work toward a happy and fulfilling lifestyle.
Working with individuals with such a wide array of issues, e.g. drug use, mental health, personal traumas must require a lot of professional training for their counselors. It would be interesting to learn more about how counselors can help clients with talk therapy on these different struggles that many people face.
John Fitzgerald says
Brandon, thanks for your feedback and own admissions. I can appreciate your comment about counselors, as many have little understanding of how to help those who suffer from trauma. It does take more than talking, a lot more. If you want a good read that take you deep into the territory of trauma and how we find ourselves again, check out Trauma and the Soul by Donald Kalsched.
I really enjoyed reading this blog post as well as all of the insightful and personal comments left by other readers. I am currently studying Social Work at PSU and am very interested in addiction, but trauma especially intrigues me and how experiences from childhood can have such an impact on people later in life. I enjoyed your discussion at PSU a few weeks ago and really loved all the information about ACE’s and addiction.
This article really opened my eyes to the idea of not remembering trauma and I really look forward to reading this book and any others that you recommend about trauma and how these experiences can affect people in a negative or positive way.
John Fitzgerald says
Thanks for nice comment!
Kerra Nowak says
Hi Dr. Fitzgerald
I thought this post was very interesting and the correlation between traumatic events and addiction is a topic I haven’t really thought much about before. After reading this information it makes since why so many people to do repress certain traumatic memories in order to get over the pain faster. I thought 38% of women who did not remember being sexually abused was pretty high. I wonder if that revelation helped lead them to a better understanding behind their addictions and risky sexual behavior that they were engaging in today? What about men? I think this blog shed light on a very sensitive topic since many people do not like the think about painful memories from the past so they self-medicate through drugs or alcohol. I am curious if age has a huge impact in when children start repressing traumatic memories. Is it necessarily easier for a younger child to remember less simply because he is younger, or can young adults 5 years older repress these memories the same way? Thanks for discussing this interesting topic!
This is an interesting post! I find it crazy how the brain works and how such a traumatic event can be forgotten. I would assume that all the horrible things that happen are the ones we remember the most, but based on this study I have seen that is not always the case. It would be a good idea to ask drug addiction patients family if anything traumatic happened while growing up to help them more. If they are not remembering this part of their life, maybe the parents or family do. It is pretty sad how something can hurt you in the long run with out knowing what one of the possible causes is. This was a great article and very insightful. Thanks for the information!
Phuong Tran says
Thanks for your information. When I first began to drink coffee, the smell of coffee made me feel like I’m surviving. I craved for it every single day. My stomach kept aching if I drank too much coffee. It actually caused the anxiety as well. When the stomach stopped hurting, the restlessness and anxiety wore off slightly. In order to reduce my caffeine intake, I try to eat a bun or some other bread with my coffee. Don’t compare myself to others, and then listen to my own body and especially heart rate and stomach to limit my caffeine.
Claire Tolles says
I think this is such an important part of understanding addiction. There is a stigma around traumatic events, whether they happen to you when you are younger or older. Most people do not like to talk about traumatic events that they have experienced, and I believe that our society accepts that silence. On one hand, talking about events like these is not an easy task. It requires courage to face hidden and intense emotions. But, on the other hand, talking about events like these is extremely crucial to emotional and physical well being. Feeling like you live in a society where no one wants to hear about your experience, because it is too inappropriate, you are ashamed or embarrassed, is a huge social and societal setback.
Living in a society where we talk and listen from the heart is crucial. To take in other’s experiences through your ears is to understand the people around you that much more. To understand the people around you means you are able to support them, and the more support and individual has, especially if he is troubled or traumatized, the less likely they may turn to substances to cope.
Lynette M says
Within my culture as a Native American I correlated this article about an individuals internal conflict with our traditional Medicine Wheel. The concept of the Medicine Wheel goes as follows; a circle divided into four equal quadrants, each quadrant represents a major life focal point. The focal points are generally expressed as but not limited to the following; spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional. This edition is the most predominately used edition of the Medicine Wheel within Native American culture(s). Additional editions include:
– Direction: north, south, east, west
– Season(s): winter, spring, summer, fall
– Age: infant, adolescent, adult, elder
– Expression/Feeling: love, guilt, pride, honor
– First Food(s): salmon, deer, roots, berries
If one is unbalance within the spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional realm (or has a high ACE score) than he or she may be more likely to suffer with a form of drug dependence.
Thank you for sharing this information! I was surprised that so many of the women did not recall their trauma, yet I feel I shouldn’t be surprised. This rings true to my own experience of sexual abuse as a child. I know it happened, but remember very little about it. I’ve wondered if I needed to remember the details of my abuse in order to heal completely. I feel that there needs to be more awareness about this issue. It’s frustrating to hear people dismiss the idea of repressed memories. Our minds are very good at protecting us from things we aren’t able to process. The problem is when this coping mechanism has outlived its purpose. That’s when we need tools to work through the remaining issues. I’m looking forward to reading the book and learning more.
John Fitzgerald says
Lynette, thanks for feedback, the medicine wheel is a wonderful way to understand life and I have written about it here: http://addictionmanagement.org/tracking-relapses/
John Fitzgerald says
Thanks for your comment. I do believe the book will be very helpful for you, particularly on the issue of memory and what is necessary to heal.
I know this is an older article, but the headline caught my eye as someone who has dealt with a traumatic event. While some cannot remember their trauma, I can remember all of it and still deal with ptsd. I can see how traumatic events can lead to addiction, despite the fact that I haven’t and will never go that route. It’s hard when you are dealing with it and want something (drugs, alcohol, even spending money) to take you out of yourself because you don’t know of any other way to cope. The way that it feels to deal with all those emotions associated with trauma is something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
Even though my trauma does not involve sexual abuse and can remember all of what I went through, I can still relate to all of the emotions associate with trauma. It’s not an easy journey at all and I encourage anyone who has experienced a trauma to seek assistance with dealing with it. It’s not a sign of weakness, but one of strength!
John Fitzgerald says
Agree Kelly, seeking help is a sign of courage! Make sure you read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, it will provide you a wealth of information on your healing journey…
Thanks for the feedback
Great and informative post in regards to you mentioning traumatic events leading to addiction, I can personally say that this is true. I’ve personally seen close friends of mine seek drugs to cope with their situations. At times, I was in denial that such a thing would occur, especially knowing that my friends were against drugs. However, when they were at their lowest, they found themselves doing illicit drugs to help them forget about their problems. This suddenly started a tolerance and dependence, which soon enough got them addicted to illicit drugs. The importance of talking about your traumatic experience to help with an addiction, just as you have stated. However, talking about those experiences can be difficult but once the person develops a trusting relationship with their drug counselor, the better chance of them battling their addiction.
Yvonne Sparks says
I find this particular topic very close to home. The amount of sexual abuse (especially among young girls) is ridiculously high all over the world. It’s a very difficult thing to measure sometimes because not all sexual assaults are reported or extent of trauma. Unfortunately, not all sexual assault victims seek and maintain professional help. I won’t get too personal here, but I do not recall everything from my abuse as a young child. I think it all depends on the age of the child and possibly extent of abuse. What I mean is did it happen only once? Did it happen over the course of several years? Or was it a one time thing and did the child know it was inappropriate?