Does Trauma Make You More Susceptible to Addiction?

Does Trauma Make You More Susceptible to Addiction?

Many clients come to us after trying everything they can to stop an addiction. Often, they’ve already been on this journey for years on end. And while it may be the substance use or behavior that prompts them to come to rehab in the first place, what we find under the surface is always unresolved trauma

As author and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté says, “Nobody’s saying that every traumatized person becomes addicted. I’m saying that every addicted person was traumatized… There are other outcomes of trauma including cancer, autoimmune disease, mental illness — addiction is only one of them.” At The Sanctuary, we definitely find this to be the case. 

So why does trauma lead to addiction, and what can be done about it? Here, we’ll explore: 

  • Why trauma makes addictive behaviors more likely; 
  • How addiction can worsen the effects of trauma;
  • How childhood traumas make us more susceptible to substance abuse; 
  • The mental and physical changes that trauma and addiction create;
  • How we can heal our body and mind from their effects; and
  • What we do at The Sanctuary to achieve full trauma and addiction recovery.

How Trauma Leads to Addiction 

The relationship between trauma and addiction is well documented by the scientific community. “We are becoming increasingly aware, through current research,” says addiction therapist Victoria Abadi, “that trauma underpins most harmful addictions.” 

Self-destructive behaviors like addiction are the result of an attempt to numb our suffering. This may or may not be something we’re consciously aware of. And when substance use comes from this place of need, the chances of it turning into an addiction are dangerously high. This takes place within a cycle that looks something like this: 

  1. Trauma occurs.
  2. You yearn for relief from its symptoms (depression, anxiety, isolation, hypervigilance, etc).
  3. Alcohol, drugs, sex, achievement or other behaviors provide that relief. 
  4. These behaviors ultimately make you feel worse. 
  5. You continue using to avoid the realities of your dependence. 
  6. Substance misuse becomes a full-on addiction. 

Addiction, as we’ll see below, also causes more trauma. Therefore, this cycle is self-perpetuating. Which is why it’s not surprising that Abadi says, “In the 25 years that I have worked with addiction, very rarely has there been a time when a client has engaged in therapy that we have not uncovered some kind of trauma that has been driving the addiction.”

How Addiction Traumatizes Us

Addiction, by nature, is unsafe. Substance use itself puts us in harm’s way. Lowered inhibitions cause us to end up in some pretty dangerous situations.The constant presence of toxins and chemically induced ups and downs destabilize our mental state. And this lifestyle, on the whole, is not aligned with who we really are. 

Abadi says her clients report that “during their addictions. they felt unsafe for prolonged periods of time.” Some of them even felt like it was “touch and go whether they emerged from their addiction alive or not.” This in itself is a traumatic experience. In short, addiction can be thought of as another way of traumatizing yourself. And it often continues for extended periods of time. 

So how do we end up in these self-reinforcing cycles in the first place?

Like many mental and emotional issues, trauma often begins in childhood

Addiction’s Origins in Childhood Trauma 

Dr. Gabor Maté worked with addicted patients in an area with one of the highest concentrations of drug abuse in North America. Over the course of 12 years, he said, “I worked with hundreds of female patients, and everyone had been sexually abused as a child. Men were physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, suffered neglect, were in foster care.” What did they all have in common? “All addictions — alcohol or drugs, sex addiction or internet addiction, gambling or shopping — are attempts to regulate our internal emotional states because we’re not comfortable, and the discomfort originates in childhood.” 

These original traumas often occur when we’re too young to remember. They can include: 

  • Abuse by a parent or caregiver 
  • Sexual abuse 
  • Domestic violence or divorce between parents 
  • The loss of a parent 
  • Emotional abandonment 

It’s often the case that these traumas remain unresolved because we don’t notice their effects until much later in life. And as long as that remains the case, our unhealed state leaves us vulnerable to further trauma. As such, the effects of childhood trauma often carry over into adulthood, where we fall into the cycles described above. 

For more on original traumas, see our articles on the five core wounds: abandonment, abuse, betrayal, defectiveness, and separation.     

How Trauma Takes Hold in Your Body and Mind 

When an event profoundly affects us, we naturally train our focus on its cause. And the more shocked, upset, or scared we are by the event, the more this is the case. This narrowed attention on our memory of trauma activates our survival gene: an evolutionary response designed to keep us safe. 

Entering Survival Mode 

The goal of survival mode is to ensure that the same trauma doesn’t happen to us again. That’s why PTSD entails so much hypervigilance. We constantly scan our surroundings, waiting for something to go wrong. This level of alertness is a highly aroused brain state. And that can be seriously taxing on all of our systems if it lasts for a long period of time. 

In survival mode, we ruminate on worst-case scenarios. We may play out entire situations in our mind, planning for what we’ll do if they come true. And each time that happens, we feel those emotions as if they’re happening to us in real-time, based on how we felt in the past. Eventually, this focus on the negative leads us to a very unfulfilling existence. It means that we miss a lot of the good in life because we’re so concerned with preventing the bad.

The problem with survival mode is that it doesn’t allow us to thrive.

Why it Feels Impossible to “Get Over” Your Trauma

The high degree of attention we pay to trauma creates long-term memories. These become engrained, so that every time we think about that trauma, we produce the same emotional and physical response. For some people, this happens hundreds of times a day. 

Abadi says of her patients: “Once they got into recovery they were easily triggered back (experienced flashbacks) to the past where in the present moment they were re-experiencing feelings, thoughts, emotions, and senses that belonged to past experiences.”

When we’re in this overly alert state, the moment something does go wrong, a biological response automatically takes place. And when that happens, we behave very similarly to how we did during our original trauma. In this state, we can’t take in new information. We’re not receptive to new ideas. And this all makes it very difficult to change, even when we sincerely want to. 

Are Some Traumas More Likely to Cause Addiction Than Others? 

Trauma occurs when something overwhelms our ability to cope. It is, therefore, subjective. Comparing your trauma to others’ and believing yours isn’t as valid is a common experience of survivors. But regardless of what specifically happened to you, how you feel is legitimate

There are some factors that influence how severely trauma affects us. These include: 

  • Proximity to your safe spaces
  • How helpless you feel 
  • General stress levels
  • Previous traumatic experiences 
  • Substance use 

We’re more vulnerable to overwhelm when we’re already in a heightened state. And in today’s world, the reality is that most of us live in a state of stress. This can be from societal issues, global conflicts, environmental changes, or general burnout from trying to meet the demands of everyday life. 

This also includes addiction, which stresses the body (as does withdrawal from substances). Addiction and trauma produce a synergistic effect, where the effects of both are worse than the sum of their parts. And this has a significant impact on how your body and brain function, and how you feel as a result. 

How Trauma Affects Your Brain 

Trauma can create changes in your neural pathways at any stage in life. Trauma that occurs in early childhood can also affect how your brain develops. 

“Studies show that early stress affects both the nerve cells in the brain and the immune systems of mice and humans and makes them more susceptible to cocaine as adults,” says Maté. “If you look at brain circuits implicated in impulse regulation or stress regulation or emotional self-regulation, all are impaired in addicts.”

So in addition to self-soothing emotional pain with substances, trauma also causes brain changes that make us more likely to become addicted to that behavior. Maté explains why this is: “Many addicts self-medicate to soothe their emotional pain—but more than that, their brain development is sabotaged by their traumatic experiences in childhood or early adolescence. The systems subverted by addiction—the dopamine and opioid circuits, the limbic or emotional brain, the stress apparatus, and the impulse control areas of the cortex—are not able to develop normally in such circumstances.”

Addiction and trauma have similar neurological consequences. According to cognitive behavioral therapist Dr. Dawn-Elise Snipes, because it involves introducing toxic chemicals, “addictions can be thought of as a physical assault on the brain.” Both addiction and trauma damage similar areas of the brain as a result of this exposure to chronic stress. 

The good news is that, because of the brain’s natural ability to change, there are plenty of opportunities to turn this around. 

Releasing Trauma From the Body and Mind  

Talking about trauma in psychotherapy helps us gain perspective and learn to manage our emotions. Those things are important, but they’re not the whole picture. Healing from trauma requires us to make much deeper-level changes. We need to release trauma from not just the brain, but also the body, soul, and spirit. 

This is trauma-specific and holistic therapies can be very effective. Some examples of these include: 

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to diminish your stress response to certain memories 
  • Emotional freedom technique (EFT), a.k.a. “tapping” to move energy and lower stress hormone levels 
  • Somatic experiencing and bodywork to help you release trauma stored in your physical body 
  • Holotropic breathwork to access and transform your subconscious understanding of your trauma

At The Sanctuary, we offer all of these and more, as well as teaching practical strategies to use in your everyday life. Our clients also attend daily talk therapy, where they have a chance to process and integrate what came up for them in other sessions. 

Ultimately, healing from trauma is about getting underneath its symptoms and into the operating system where this programming exists. While your brain and body may be conditioned by your trauma, the good news is that you can also retrain them. By breaking the bonds of your past, you open yourself to new possibilities for the future. And when that happens, more of your energy becomes more available to you. Then, you can redirect your attention to what really moves your soul. 

Recovering from Addiction and Trauma at The Sanctuary 

Restoring the Body and Brain

When our stress response system is overworked for so long, we no longer have energy for self-repair. That’s why at The Sanctuary, we dedicate so much attention to getting all of your systems back to functioning normally, so you can feel present and focused in your therapy sessions and get the most out of your time in treatment. This includes approaches such as:

  • IV drip therapies like NAD+, vitamin infusion, and detox support to replenish depleted nutrients and kickstart your body’s healing processes
  • A superfood nutrition program to restore your gut health, as well as weekly nutrition classes so you can keep up your new habits at home 
  • Personalized supplement protocol to repair the brain and body, prescribed by our in-house Functional Medicine doctor 

Digging Deeper to Solve Root Causes 

We the counselors, therapists, doctors, and nurses have a clearer understanding of what it is we are treating,” says Abadi. “If we treat the drug, alcohol, or sex problem we are missing the point. That behavior is a symptom of a much deeper underlying hurt.”

Our science-based addiction and trauma treatment program does just that. 

This transformative journey allows you to discover the relationship between your past traumas and current self-harming behaviors. You’ll have the ability to make these connections and heal your wounds at their source at every step of your healing journey. And, we intentionally expose you to a wide array of healing modalities, so you can learn what works best for you

A Safe Environment for Healing 

We understand that shaming, blaming, and judging do not create a conducive environment for healing. And we know that if you’re going through addiction, you’ve done enough of that yourself. In fact, our approach is just the opposite. We’re not here to tell you what you did wrong. We’re here to help you see your strengths and harness them to create the life you desire. 

According to Maté, “The more pain you cause people, the more you shame and isolate them, the worse they’ll feel about themselves. The more suffering you impose, the more you strengthen their need to escape.” At The Sanctuary, we take great care to create conditions that let you feel safe enough to take on this great challenge of healing. And our incredible team is available around the clock to make sure you’re guided, supported, and cared for.

Learn how you can not only heal from the effects of trauma and addiction but live your life from a completely different place. Contact our admissions team today.  

He is the Founder, Administrator, Counselor at the Sanctuary at Sedona.

He has a BA in Political Science and is currently Senior teaching staff at Four Winds Society, an international school of energy medicine. His credentials also include being an Ordained Minister; a Certified Shamanic Breathwork® Facilitator; a Founding Member Society for Shamanic Practitioners; a Member of Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology; a Member of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. [email protected]