Skip to main content

Addiction, Trauma and Spirituality by Gabor Maté, MD

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside of us.

Check out this video with Dr. Gabor Maté as he talks about Addiction, Trauma and Spirituality.


So, when it comes to addictions, clearly, we’re not succeeding very well in treating it. The relapse rate amongst people that come into therapy is very high. The other thing is that our treatment modalities are not working very well with addiction and I don’t have to give you the statistics.

But there could be two reasons for that. At least one of them is that addiction really is this really elusive refractory, difficult to treat disease. That’s one possibility. And it’s just, we can’t do any better than we are. That’s one possibility. The other is that perhaps our approach to it is not appropriate, maybe we don’t understand it. Our perspective on it perhaps is limited.

Addiction is not a choice, it is a disease

No addict I’ve ever worked with, no addict you will ever work with or have worked with ever woke up one morning and decided to become a drug addict. It’s not a matter of choice. It’s absolute nonsense to say so. So, let’s just be done with the choice idea, except that the whole legal system is based on it, which immensely complicates our work, because our clients are forever taken to court, under the assumption that they’ve chosen behaviors that are against the law, and for which they should be punished and that whole punishment modality immensely complicates. In fact, undermines the therapeutic work so much for the choice idea.

Now, the medical perspective and addiction is that it’s a brain disease. So, the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic primary brain disorder, disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. And according to them, genetic factors account for about half of the likelihood that individual develop addiction is a fundamentally, it’s a largely genetically programmed propensity, that then develops into a chronic brain disease. So basically, what we’re talking about here is addiction is a neurological disease of the brain, largely potentiated by genetic factors.

Different layers of Addiction

One way to look at addictions then, and I’m looking at it from different layers. So, first of all, is an attempt to solve a life problem on a second level as actually self-medication of what we call concurrent conditions. So, if you deal with a population of stimulant addicts, and if you don’t screen them for lifelong ADHD, you’re just missing a big clue about the source of their addiction.

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what happens inside of us

Everything is said here the way at least if I don’t, if I’m not over interpreting it, the lack of a positive self-image, the lack of excitement, vitality, the presence of pain and threats, the lack of sufficient pleasure. These are trauma imprints.

Trauma is not what happens to us but what happens inside of us as a result of what happens to us, and that trauma is manifested in a disconnection from self, all of which these qualities that you folks brought up, represent as a disconnection from yourself.

Addiction is a response to trauma, and it’s an attempt to solve a life problem. It’s not the primary problem is the secondary problem. And ultimately, we have to address the primary problem to really help people recover from addiction.