Addiction Starts In Childhood

addiction due abuseRenowned Vancouver physician Dr. Gabor Maté explains what he thinks we get wrong in treating addiction. He believes that the root of addictive behaviors can be traced all the way back to childhood.

Maté has begun treating patients using ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made from the bark of an Amazonian rainforest tree.  Early research has shown it could hold promise for treating addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because ayahuasca is a controlled substance, Health Canada has ordered that Maté refrain from using the substance in his work with addicts.

Addiction definition

Addiction is a complex process that involves brain, body, emotions, psychology and social relationships. The expression of addiction is any behavior where a person craves and finds temporary pleasure or relief in something, but suffers negative consequences as a result of use its and is unable to give up despite those negative consequences.

The single factor that’s at the core of all addictions is trauma. Adverse childhood experiences have been shown to exponentially increase the risk of addiction later on in life.

That’s one set of difficult experiences. There is another set of difficult experiences that’s a bit harder to distinguish, and that’s not when bad things happen but when good things don’t happen. A child has certain fundamental needs for emotional development and also for brain development. In families where the parents are overly stressed or aren’t able to be emotionally present with the children, in the case of sensitive children, it can interfere with their brain development. The children will look for reward elsewhere.

Ayahuasca tree

Ayahuasca tree

When we’re looking at psychological pain at the heart of all addictions and addictive behaviors, they have one intended purpose: to soothe pain or to escape from pain or stress. Addiction has the features of a disease. It does have dysfunctional physiological brain circuits, it results in pathological effects, it is characterized by relapse, but it does not mean that it’s only a disease.

If we could provide a treatment that was trauma-informed, that provided a safe environment with good support and psychotherapy, the use of some psychedelics could greatly increase our success. Psychedelics have been used particularly in the ’60 s and even before. People can use MDMA (methylene-dioxy-meth-amphetamine) or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) to trip out, so, naturally, people think these are bad things.

The psychedelic experience is not necessarily a pleasant event. People can experience profound emotions of fear, emotional pain, confusion. It just brings out whatever’s inside of them. Psychedelic means “mind-manifesting” – it manifests whatever is in your mind that you weren’t aware was there.

With ayahuasca, people often say it can be like 10 years of psychotherapy in one week. There have been encouraging results using MDMA for veterans and others with post-traumatic stress disorder. We know from Latin American studies the value of ayahuasca in terms of addiction, and there is encouraging work with ibogaine for opiate addiction.

Within the constrictions of a system that deems these substances of no medical benefit and makes them illegal, it’s great to see how much research is being done and how much conversation is being generated in medical and psychiatric and research circles.


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