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The Brain Science of Addiction and Trauma: Discussion in Charleston

Part of what makes Substance Abuse Disorder so hard to treat is the way it takes over a deeply rooted, animal part of the brain. (rebcenter/Pixabay)
Part of what makes Substance Abuse Disorder so hard to treat is the way it takes over a deeply rooted, animal part of the brain. (rebcenter/Pixabay)
April 30, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Brain science can help explain why people with serious addictions are so out of control, and why many addicts have trauma in their history.

Jessica Holton is a licensed clinical social worker and addiction specialist teaching in Charleston this week. She said in her practice, almost all of the addicts have trauma in their background, as well as Substance Abuse Disorder. Holton said this is because both addiction and trauma take over the limbic system - the animal part of the brain - bypassing the rational decision-making part.

"We often think that it's a choice, a moral failure. But really the science shows that the survival part of the brain, the limbic system, actually gets hijacked for those who have a true addiction,” Holton said.

Addicts sometimes say it's as if they've lost control of their own hands. Holton describes that as a symptom.

She'll be in Charleston for the Spring Conference of the National Association of Social Workers, West Virginia. That conference starts Wednesday. It's the largest event of its kind in the country. This year's schedule also includes discussions of foster care and social work in schools.

The limbic system controls pleasure and fear, and the out-of-control impulses known as the fight-or-flight response we experience when threatened. Holton said for those experiencing a trauma, or reliving one, the limbic system is pumping out fear messages that can override everything else.

She said drugs - at least at first - make the system put out pleasure messages. That's part of why people with post-traumatic stress disorder are vulnerable to Substance Abuse Disorder.

"Addiction tends to help people numb out and helps them to avoid,” Holton said. “In trauma, that same part of the brain works in overdrive. So it makes sense as to why when the brain is overreacting and over-responding and everything is a threat, substance use and trauma tend to go hand in hand."

Fairly quickly, serious substance abuse can overwork the limbic system's ability to create pleasure, which is why addicts say they no longer enjoy it. They just take substances to avoid withdrawal, a big part of which is the limbic system sending out fear messages.

Holton said the good news is that even if addiction can't be cured, an addict's limbic system can return to a state closer to normal after some months sober.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV