While in the field this week I had a familiar conversation with a teen in my group. It started with him telling me that he has changed and now believes marijuana is bad for him. When I first started this work I would have taken the bait and maybe even given him a very encouraging amount of approval. But now I challenge every teen who tells me this. I usually stop them abruptly and ask them how they really feel about pot or their other drug of choice. This is the point where they come alive, if they are being honest.
The teens I work with have spent years building not just a dependence or habit, they have built a relationship with their addiction. This relationship is strong. It is protective and destructive, caring and harming, comforting and traumatizing. It baffles the teen’s parents, siblings, teachers, pastors, and even themselves. Anyone who has watched a loved one with a substance abuse problem has seen this.
Almost every parent that I speak with repeatedly asks me the same question at least twice. Why?
As childhood stress and trauma become more prevalent and access to psychoactive substances becomes easier we will all ask this question of someone we love. Generally, the question is easy to answer. If trauma and stress are stored in the subcortical part of our brains, then psychoactive substances are often the quickest, strongest, and most readily available solution. And more pertinently, as long as this storage remains present and the substances are nearby we can expect continued use and relapse in spite of treatment, consequences, or support groups. Many parents see this pattern repeat itself, while they struggle to dig at the roots of this problem. And many clinicians, counselors, mentors, and sponsors try to talk some sense into the most primal parts of the brain while knowing that their words are making a very limited impact on this primitive and overriding bond.
As a clinician I have run into this same frustration over and over again. How can we get to the roots? How can we reach our traumatized and stressed teens in a way the breaks their need for psychoactive substances? This question has caused a significant shift in how I see primary treatment for anyone with substance abuse or dependence. The best approach we can take is by treating the whole brain. Talk therapy will treat some of the brain, but often leaves unaddressed stored traumas and maladapted neuropathways. More brain-based interventions such as Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga, EMDR, Brainspotting, and Heart Math have been able to dig deeper at these roots.
A teen’s best chance at ending such a powerful connection is to heal the whole brain by addressing the trauma and stress that have been stored up.