What is the Correlation Between Trauma and Substance Abuse?

What is the Correlation Between Trauma and Substance Abuse?

Living with trauma can be an excruciating experience. It’s no surprise, then, that many people who have significant trauma use substances to cope. What does surprise some people, though, is that what they thought was one problem – addiction – is actually an expression of something much deeper.

Our unresolved traumas and the beliefs we form around them shape much of our lives. This can feel impossible to overcome. But the truth is, we have the power to heal from trauma and recover from addiction completely. Sometimes we just need help seeing the way there.

Trauma Comes in Different Forms

We often think of trauma as a product of one, major event. But it can also come from our dominant culture, family of origin, or a series of small events over time. And overwhelming evidence shows how strong the connection is between any form of trauma and substance abuse.

One study published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education found that of the 121 outpatient rehab clients surveyed, 85% had underlying trauma. It also expresses concern about the lack of trauma-informed treatment professionals to address this need. According to its authors, “Trauma is prevalent among clients with substance abuse issues, yet addictions counselors’ training in trauma approaches is limited.”

Physical and Sexual Abuse

Another study looked at negative life consequences among patients in residential drug and alcohol detox. Of the 370 participants surveyed, 81% of women and 69% of men reported past physical or sexual abuse.

Additionally, a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that women with a history of sexual assault showed a higher likelihood of alcohol and drug misuse.

Cultural Trauma

We can also internalize harmful messaging from society at large. One study explores the link between racial trauma and addiction among Native American groups. “Among the many health problems affected by racial discrimination and oppression, both historical and current,” say the study’s authors. “Epidemiological studies have documented greater drug and alcohol-related morbidity and mortality among AI/AN Alaska Natives compared to other ethnic groups.”

As one participant stated, “Oppression is the overarching umbrella for all sickness with drugs and alcohol.”

Epigenetics, Trauma, and Addiction

Epigenetics looks at how environmental factors can affect your genetic expression. According to a study on epigenetics, PTSD and substance abuse, “A large body of evidence shows that prolonged stress or even a single traumatic experience can lead to neurobiological and behavioral changes that are persistent.” In other words, trauma can have impacts on your physical and mental health that last for the rest of your life – or until your trauma is resolved.

Sometimes trauma develops a set of symptoms that we call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. And PTSD “is associated with epigenetic changes that result in altered gene expression.” Some of these changes might make you more susceptible to addiction. Furthermore, substance use can also affect your genetic expression, “some of which may contribute to the formation of a drug addiction or a stress-related psychiatric disorder.”

People struggling with PTSD tend to have heightened fear responses. This means they’re generally more exposed to stress – and more likely to cope by using drugs or alcohol. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma, self-soothing with substances, and compounding issues. But while this paints a bleak picture, it’s not the whole story.

Just as we create these changes, we also have the power to undo them. Yes, you’re “wired” a certain way and born with certain genes. But what you eat, how you think, and what you do from moment to moment can affect the way those genes are expressed. And at The Sanctuary, our science-based addiction and trauma healing program harnesses this power of epigenetics. Our approach optimizes your own abilities to self-heal and influence your health for the better.

What Our Beliefs say About the World Around Us

A large portion of our genetic expression is based on the beliefs we hold. These affect how we feel, which in turn affects how we perceive the world around us. And since we can’t understand anything beyond what we can perceive, if our beliefs tell us that the world is an unsafe place, that’s how it will feel.

The good news is that we can move past this. While it may be challenging, it is possible to undo our conditioning and reclaim our personal power. And this is possible for you, even if your past experiences in treatment tell you otherwise.

When You Feel You’ve Tried it All

If you’re struggling with problem drinking or drug use as a result of your trauma, there’s a good chance it’s been going on for a while now. And if that’s the case, you’re certainly not alone.

Many clients come to us at The Sanctuary after trying various forms of therapy and healing modalities. Many have been to rehab before, and some have even been to other holistic treatment centers. And while they may have felt better for a while, if they didn’t heal the real root of their problem, it eventually came back. At the end of the day, they still had a sense that they were caught in patterns they couldn’t escape.

Most people end up in rehab because some coping strategy (like drinking or drug use) became so painful that they could no longer function normally. This is also true for clients at The Sanctuary. But many of our clients are also aware that they’re not just here to treat their symptoms. They know they need to create real change, because what worked for them before no longer does. They want to know why they still feel traumatized or stuck in addiction.

That’s why so much of our work centers on getting underneath what presents on the surface. We need to find out what compels us to soothe ourselves in these ways.

The Pain of Living an Unfulfilled Life

Almost everyone who comes to us has a deep longing to have a more fulfilled life. At the core of their addiction is a sense that they’re living an unlived life.

Each of us is on our soul’s journey, and each of us has a purpose. But we live in a world where it’s easy to feel disconnected from it – and that’s a very painful place to be. So many traumas use coping strategies to avoid feeling that pain. Those could be obvious tactics like alcohol, drugs, food, or sex. Or they could be less recognizable ones like overworking and perfectionism.

Our treatment program aims not just to help you get sober, but ultimately to fully engage in your own life. And to do that, we guide you through a healing journey to explore the depths of the psyche and soul.

From Surviving to Thriving

While we may long to thrive, the truth is that most of us are stuck in survival mode. And much of this is not our fault but has to do with the realities of the world we live in.

Survival mode doesn’t feel good. It leads to hypervigilance, fight or flight, constantly scanning for what could go wrong, and feeling like things shouldn’t be as they are. And when we’re in this space, we’re cut off from the essence of who we really are.

Our clients find that when they reestablish that connection, they don’t want to go back to what they thought was “normal.” Their normal life fell very short of their true calling. They want something far beyond that – a greater version of themselves. And once they discover their personal power, they realize this is very much within reach.

Getting to this new place has a lot to do with challenging our previously held beliefs.

Limiting Beliefs

It’s not external factors that hold us back. It’s the beliefs we create around our experiences. Whether these beliefs tell us there’s something wrong with us or the world isn’t a safe place, they shape our lived experience. They can make us feel small; confined; like we’re living in our own prison. Luckily, we have the power to change them.

When you live with trauma, it can be hard to trust your own body. You may feel like there’s something wrong with you. And if you’ve been through conventional addiction treatment, you might even feel like you’re genetically doomed to have a “chemical imbalance” for the rest of your life.

What mainstream treatment doesn’t teach you is that your body has the power to heal itself, and you don’t have to be defined by trauma or addiction.

Challenging Limitations

Healing from trauma and addiction requires us to take a close look at these beliefs. This is where outside help is useful because we often aren’t even aware of what beliefs inform our behavior. At The Sanctuary, we start by asking:

Where did this belief come from?

It might feel real, but is it true?

We then focus on breaking apart the belief structures that led you to a place of self-destruction. Through various healing methods, we teach you how to release the stories that no longer serve you. And once that happens, it’s amazing how much anxiety lifts – because the beliefs that used to hold so much charge no longer do.

Finding Safety to Start Healing

Before beginning any challenging or vulnerable work, it’s important to calm the nervous system and allow yourself to feel safe. The Sanctuary, with its peaceful surroundings, is designed to do just that. You’ll eat nutritious food, sleep well in the quiet of the desert, and be surrounded by loving, caring staff and peers. After just a few days of this, you’ll quickly adjust to our more natural pace of life.

Then, you’re ready to dive in.

Treating Trauma and Substance Abuse at The Sanctuary


Our non-12-Step, holistic approach to trauma treatment sees you as a whole person – not a diagnosis. We treat PTSD, sexual abuse, childhood trauma, and childhood sexual abuse using a personalized treatment plan to heal your mind, body, soul, and spirit.

Our trauma-informed team members don’t shame, blame or judge you. We don’t see you as broken, but instead, focus on your wholeness – and empower you to see it for yourself. Some trauma-specific therapies we use include:

  • EMDR
  • Trauma release exercises (TRE)
  • Somatic experiencing

While The Sanctuary is a safe place to work on vulnerable issues, we also acknowledge that the outside world isn’t always trauma-sensitive. That’s why we prepare you with practical strategies for managing triggers, dealing with challenges, and strengthening your support system.

Conventional wisdom says that trauma never fully goes away. But at The Sanctuary, we know better, because we’ve seen so many clients radically transform. You can free yourself from the narratives of trauma and change your patterns, behaviors, and relationships for good.

Addiction and Substance Use Disorders

Truly recovering from alcohol or drug addiction is so much more than just getting sober. It’s about healing the traumas underlying your drive to use substances, so you don’t feel the need for them anymore. Addiction affects all parts of your being. And at The Sanctuary, we take steps to restore your body, brain, and energy back to health.

One of the ways we do this is via IV drip therapies. These nutritional therapies kick-start your body’s natural processes to help you recover more quickly from the damage caused by harmful substances. We use pharmaceutical-grade products specifically compounded for our program. And our on-staff naturopath, functional medicine doctor, and support team members oversee your care.

Move Past Trauma and Addiction and Reconnect With Your Authentic Self

You’re here on this Earth to do far more than just survive. You’re here to carry out your purpose and share your unique gifts with the world.

What’s holding you back from living your most fulfilled life?

Contact The Sanctuary today to learn how you can get started on your journey to freedom.

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]