Adverse Childhood Experiences and Addiction to Excitement

By | 2017-08-03T09:25:29+00:00 August 3rd, 2017|

Part of experiencing high amounts of stress, chronic misattunement, or being raised by adults who have emotional insecurities can result in an addiction to excitement that carries over into adulthood.

This characteristic becomes so much of how they respond to life that they may even consider it to be apart of their personality. This has long been recognized by groups like Adult Children of Alcoholics and Other Dysfunctional Families.

This addiction to excitement results from changes to the brain chemistry during development. The dopamine reward system is particularly affected and involved in this long-term effect from childhood trauma or stress.

Dopamine is the brain chemical that gives us a sense of meaning, pleasure, and motivation.  When we engage in activities that are meaningful and enjoyable to us, our brains release dopamine that makes us feel a sense of pleasure and ultimately, more alive.  

When our levels of dopamine dip down, we get a strong urge to engage in an activity that is meaningful and enjoyable again, thus driving our motivation to do things.  

When the dopamine system is affected, usually it results in an overall dopamine deficiency, where at default, the brain feels less meaning and pleasure with regular life activities. Our motivation to continue a calm life goes down, but our brains develop an overwhelming need to have more dopamine.  

One can feel that life is boring, that they are just maintaining the status quo, and it becomes really important to that individual to have a bigger purpose and meaning in life rather than investing in the relationships around them.

In Bruce Perry’s book, Born to Love, the chemistry in a baby’s and mother’s brain is explored and described as priming the brain and body to bond or attach as soon as the baby is delivered.  

This bonding process is not only creating a secure attachment for the child, but also organizing the development of the brain and body. Part of organizing the development of the brain is priming the dopamine reward system to get meaning and pleasure from social engagement with mom.  

Thus, a healthy brain develops in close emotional connection with its mother during the first year of life. And its systems, wires, and chemistry are made to get meaning and pleasure from healthy emotional connection with others.  

In attachment trauma, this all goes wrong. The result is a need to get dopamine from places other than healthy relationships.  

The pattern that almost consistently plays out in children and adults who have insecure attachment or attachment disorder is the need to create excitement when things are calm and stable. This provides them a dopamine release that is needed for them to feel alive and feel that they have meaning and purpose.  

While healthy stability in life and in relationships tend to create a sense of security in others, those who have attachment disorder or trauma are left feeling bored and need to create excitement in some areas of their life in order to get the dopamine flowing so that they feel alive. This pattern continues to repeat itself throughout their life, yet on an instinctual subconscious level.  

This addiction to excitement can pop up in any area of life. In children, it can look like general hyperactivity, emotional insecurity, or even symptoms of conduct disorder. It can be hard to really identify it if a parent is not looking for it, because the signs can be so subtle and it can be interpreted as just a mischievous or active personality.

As they grow, they learn other ways to get the dopamine rush, and may become “adrenaline junkies.” Their relationships tend to be dramatic, with something always wrong, and they create drama in their relationships with either picking fights and punishing others.

As adults, the pattern becomes clearer, though it can be really hard to recognize without some intense interpersonal work. The pattern is that their life tends to always have some problem going on. Their life is never calm and healthy for a long period of time, because the brain doesn’t do well without dopamine for an extended period of time.

For some, substance use or behavioral addictions (sex addiction, food addiction, workaholism) creates the intensity and excitement they seek. Secrecy and lies is part of what creates an excitement and a dopamine rush.

This may show up in doing something dangerous or something that would have really negative consequences if they were to get caught.   

Dopamine and Relationships

A stable, calm relationship with open, honest, and kind communication is very meaningful to a person who was raised by a securely attached mother. They thrive in this relationship and it provides them security, and … dopamine.

Relationships that could be described as intense, a fling, or “like fire and gasoline” always involve a person with an insecure attachment and early childhood attachment trauma. People with secure attachments would not engage or stay in that kind of relationship, whereas those with insecure attachments seek out and are attracted to those types of relationships.  

Relationships are a major area of life in which people with dopamine deficiencies act out. Acting out in relationships to get the dopamine flowing can look like picking a fight in a relationship about things that are not really important in the big picture.  

Other times, adults with dopamine deficiencies interpret their building sense of restlessness as falling out of love with their partner, which can lead to separation, divorce, or an affair.

It is more common than not to continue the pattern of relationship excitement by interacting with different people other than your partner. Whether in a dating relationship or married, a partner will find themselves attracted to another person and start to flirt or constantly think about this other person. This is a strong sign of this addiction to excitement due to low dopamine.

Dopamine and Finances

Finances is another area of life in which a person can show signs of an addiction to excitement due to early childhood inconsistency. Financial security is enjoyed by many with a secure attachment, yet many with histories of Adverse Childhood Experiences and attachment trauma find themselves putting themselves financially at risk.  

This can look like debt, or perhaps over-consumed with earning more money, or managing their budget in such a way that makes them nervous. This feeling of nervousness is equivalent to excitement and makes them feel alive. This is the dopamine in the brain.  

Dopamine in the Office

The need for excitement and to have some drama in life to fully feel alive will also come out at work.  

Gossip, having a hard time following rules, or workaholism are all features of a need for excitement and drama. This is self-sabotaging of course, but it does create a nervousness about either being fired, being liked, or earning enough that results in dopamine and satisfies the addiction to excitement.  

These people do tend to go through more jobs than those with a secure attachment, as they are always moving on to the next better thing, have been let go, or they decide it’s not a good place for them.  

The Relief for an Addiction to Excitement

One of the key features of dopamine deficiency and an addiction to excitement is the immediate relief they feel after they act out.  

Once the chaos and drama is put into effect, it is as if they have received their drug and they feel calm, while others around them can be reacting with anything but calm.

The Self-Deceit of an Addiction to Excitement

Unless they have begun their healing process and gained a good amount of self-awareness, the person is not aware of what they are doing nor why are they are doing it. In the moment, it feels very logical and feels like truth to them.  

They would pass a lie detector test if questioned that they were doing it for any other reason other than “it is the right and best thing to do.”

Let me give you an example.  

A good friend of mine, grew up in a family that had unhealthy emotional dynamics that was also based on her mother’s behaviors throughout her life. It was nothing that would be considered abusive or neglectful, and was well within the range of what would be considered normal parenting.  

However, what did give me an indication that there was early misattunement between her and her mother was the fact that when she was repeatedly sexually used by an older male cousin, she did not tell her mother. If she had had a secure attachment with her mother, it would have been automatic for her to feel safe confiding in her mother.

Now at age 28, the patterns in her life are those consistent with the traits and patterns of early childhood stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences.  

She started dating her husband at age 16, got pregnant at age 18, and then married him. This pattern of relationship is very consistent with the need for excitement in life.

She married someone who is still considered to be an immigrant and has a high risk of being deported. This is also consistent with the need for insecurity to maintain a level of nervousness and excitement.

She now has two daughters with her husband, and has mentioned that she and her husband joke around with their daughters (ages 10 and 8) about who would live with who if they were to get divorced.  

Just one month ago she was chuckling about this and how she had tricked her daughters and had taken them to a dinner spot where they usually go before they go see a movie afterward dinner. The girls had gotten excited about a movie, but then had been really downcast when my friend started driving home after dinner rather than going to the theater next door.  

She was chuckling, because she was actually taking them to a different theater, a nicer theater. On the way though, she played with them a bit and said “Why the sad faces?” The girls had said, “Oh, nothing.” The mother had then asked, “Oh, you guys thought we would take you to the movies!” She still said nothing about the fact that they were actually going to the movies.

A few weeks after this incident, she came to me in tears and said how she no longer loved her husband romantically, and they were talking about separating. She said they both loved each other very much, she just no longer loved him romantically.

She made the decision to separate and moved out two days later, which she described as feeling a great calm that immediately came over her.  

This pattern of interaction in relationships is consistent with the need for creating drama, rather than the pattern of a secure, calm, and stable relationship with open and healthy communication.  

The Calm During the Storm

This calm is the change in the brain chemistry that is equated with the increase of dopamine. The excitement is like a drug that reestablishes normal brain chemistry.  

Many times you can feel the tension and agitation building up for hours or days before there is a big blow up. My experience, and that of many other moms of children with attachment disorder, is that once they act out, they can have a calm. Whether an immediate calm or a deeper relaxation after the chaos settles, it is a sign that their brain chemistry has reestablished a calm and meaningful place.  

You may enjoy this video where I discuss how to prevent the tension and agitation from building again and prevent these dramatic shows just for excitement and dopamine.  

Do you have any stories you would like to share? Sometimes you might think that you are the crazy one, until you start to hear other people’s stories. Remember you are not alone in this!

To Health and Healing ~


Dr. Aimie




Blum K, Braverman ER, Holder JM, Lubar JF, Monastery VJ, Miller D, Lubar JO, Chen TJ, Comings DE.  Reward Deficiency Syndrome: A Biogenetic Model for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Impulsive, Addictive, and Compulsive Behaviors.  J Psychoactive Drugs.  Nov 2000;32 Suppl:i-iv, 1-112

Comings DE, Blum K. Reward Deficiency Syndrome: Genetic Aspects of Behavioral Disorders.  Prog Brain Res. 2000;126: 325-41

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