Trauma Bonding: Can You be Addicted to an Abusive Relationship?
The experience of suffering through an abusive relationship creates a brain response that mirrors addiction, known as trauma bonding. Let’s take a look at how this unhealthy bond develops.
Addiction is a brain-based disease that affects your brain’s reward centre. In particular, it affects the brain’s ability to regulate and process a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. As you fall further into the clutches of addiction, you become increasingly reliant on your drug of choice in order to generate a dopamine response in your brain. This is the essence of addiction, and it wreaks havoc on your brain chemistry.
It’s important to note that addiction is not synonymous with physical dependence on a substance. You can become addicted to processes, such as gambling or sex. And as it turns out, the experience of suffering through an abusive relationship also creates a brain response that mirrors addiction. This response is known as a trauma bond.
How Your Brain Becomes Addicted to Abusive Relationships
To understand how addictive relationships mirror addiction, we must first take a closer look at the role of dopamine in the brain. This neurotransmitter is the key component in the brain’s reward centre, and it serves to reinforce positive behaviours that promote our survival and wellbeing. From an evolutionary standpoint, dopamine encourages us to take care of ourselves.
Whenever you experience a baseline pleasurable response, dopamine is being released in your brain’s reward centre. The pleasure of eating food that tastes good is a ready example, but there are countless others. Dopamine plays a role in everything from the satisfaction of building and maintaining positive relationships to the pleasure of lying down in bed after a hard day’s work.
By rewarding itself with a pleasure response for these activities, your brain conditions itself to repeat them. It even conditions itself to anticipate future dopamine releases that will be experienced when the activity is repeated – driving you to engage in it again. Over time, the urge to engage in these activities becomes hard-wired into the brain. This is where the reward centre can go wrong.
As mentioned above, some substances induce dopamine production directly. But so does the intense satisfaction of winning the pot in a hand of poker, or indulging in sugary foods. The same neurotransmitter that encourages our species to seize winnings when opportunity affords can also drive us to seek them out compulsively. The chemical that urges us to gorge on high-calorie food when available as a hedge against famine or drought can also drive full-blown food addiction in times of plenty.
How Trauma Bonds Form in Abusive Relationships
The same neurotransmitter also features prominently in the roller-coaster ride of an abusive relationship. When the abuser lashes out, the victim experiences physical or psychological pain – sometimes both. This induces production of the stress hormone cortisol.
But in most abusive relationships, the abuser also showers the victim with affection or praise. This is part of the ongoing cycle of abuse. These seemingly happy moments prompt a surge in dopamine release. The brain recognises this and associates it with being closer to the abuser. It craves more of this kind of contact, and conditions itself to seek it out.
A bond develops between the victim and the abuser. The victim’s brain convinces them that if they can only continue to please their abuser – by being close to them and saying and doing the right things – then they’ll continue to experience the pleasure of dopamine release.
Why Trauma Bonding is a Form of Dependency
In the case of a trauma bond, what the brain wants and what it actually gets stands in stark contrast to one another. The abuser creates a feast-or-famine mindset, in which a hostile environment becomes rewarding and pleasurable, only to turn hostile again. As this cycle continues, the bond strengthens and the victim becomes even more desperate to please the abuser.
The victim becomes dependent on the relationship. This process of extreme highs giving way to extreme lows, and back again, is remarkably similar to the succession of highs and comedowns experienced in substance abuse, or in the alternating victories and self-defeating humiliation of compulsive behaviours.
Breaking free of an abusive relationship requires creating distance. This gives the victim an opportunity to free themselves of what amounts to addictive thinking – an intense desire to be near the very person who is causing them pain.
Breaking Free of an Unhealthy Trauma Bond
At The Cabin Bangkok, we use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other therapies to help our clients overcome mental wellness concerns like trauma and addiction. We teach them to retrain their brains to rely upon new, more productive methods of dopamine release.
If you’ve recently escaped from an abusive relationship and find yourself longing to reunite with that person even when you know it would be self-destructive to do so, you’re probably feeling the effects of a trauma bond. Our counsellors can develop a treatment plan for you that helps you break free of this addictive thinking. Contact us now for a confidential consultation.