photo of What is the Impact of Trauma on Addiction?

What is the Impact of Trauma on Addiction?

You might be surprised to know that at The Sanctuary, nearly all of our clients discover their addictions are rooted in some form of unresolved trauma. Unhealed wounds have a way of making themselves known in our lives, even if we do our best to suppress them. And suppressing them with alcohol or drugs creates a whole world of problems on its own, once addiction takes hold. Here, we’ll discuss how trauma can increase the risk of addiction, what this means for our lives, and how The Sanctuary’s healing journey offers opportunities for lifelong change.

Learn How Trauma Can Lead to Addiction

Living with trauma can often feel very isolating. And in that state, trauma survivors are much more susceptible to things like substance misuse. As family therapist Deena McMahon, MSW, LICSW puts it, “Trauma victims feel isolated and vulnerable. They try overly hard to fit in and may make poor choices in an attempt to be accepted. That need to be accepted often includes high-risk behaviors.”

Humans are wired to seek pleasure, and even the most resilient people get tired of constant suffering. Which is why it’s no surprise that so many survivors of trauma turn to substances for relief. “It makes perfect sense that an individual who is flooded with shame, dread, fear, and anxiety needs a source of comfort,” says McMahon. “That comfort can be temporarily found by drinking alcohol, unhealthy sexual behavior, gambling [or] drug abuse.”

But the unfortunate reality of using alcohol or drugs to cope is that over time, addictive behaviors add to the isolation. Because addiction involves so much secrecy and shame, being caught in its grasp only makes us feel more alone.

Searching for Solace

Some people can use substances occasionally without it becoming much of a problem. But when we’re struggling with mental health, using alcohol or drugs as a coping technique leaves us very vulnerable to addiction. As your brain learns that certain substances relieve symptoms of trauma, that behavior is reinforced. Eventually, this cycle becomes very hard to break.

Dr. Tian Dayton explains this process in her book, Trauma and Addiction: Ending the Cycle of Pain Through Emotional Literacy:

“Trauma and addiction go hand-in-hand. The traumatized person who experiences deep and intolerable emotional and psychological pain or suffers from such states of physiological arousal as rapid breathing, racing heart, or anxiety, may discover the dangerous lesson that a little bit of alcohol, some heroin, cocaine, a joint, sugar or sex brings quick and reliable relief. Initially, the pain goes away and a sense of equilibrium is restored. ‘Ahh, that’s better, I feel okay again.’ Eventually, however, the brain and body become addicted, and larger and larger amounts of the addictive substance are needed to produce the same effect. Then feeling great is no longer possible, because the body and mind have been damaged by years of addiction, and the [trauma survivor] has to use just to feel normal. What starts out as an attempt to manage pain evolves into a new source of it.”

Substances might offer temporary relief but ultimately create even more problems. The reality is that a void this deep needs to be filled in a very different way.

Easing Discomfort

Additionally, certain substances promise relief from certain feelings. Depressants like alcohol and benzos, for example, might calm symptoms like hypervigilance and intrusive thoughts, or help you feel sleepy after a night of battling insomnia. Likewise, stimulants like meth and cocaine can make you feel elated or euphoric – feelings that may not otherwise be very common in your life.

No one sets out to form an addiction. They start using substances because it allows them to feel good. Joy and connection are such an essential part of what it means to be human, and are important for balancing out the darkness of life. But these may be hard to come by in a day-to-day life that’s largely marked by trauma. As McMahon says, trauma survivors “use substances to find short-lived solace from an internal experience that is unbearable.”

Masking Trauma Prolongs Its Effects

The problem with this is that masking trauma only serves to perpetuate it. Avoiding a deep dive into emotions we don’t want to feel may make us seem more functional on the surface. But it doesn’t make our trauma go away. And as long as it remains in our shadows, it continues to affect everything we do in life, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

The dual diagnoses of trauma and addiction are also a double-edged sword. While trauma increases the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder (SUD), substance misuse also increases the negative effects of trauma. That’s because:

  • Being under the influence makes you more likely to engage in high-risk behavior; and
  • Alcohol and drug use depletes the internal resources that you need to cope with trauma in a healthy way.

Being Affected by Trauma You’re Not Aware Of

Some people may not feel debilitated by their trauma, or meet the criteria for PTSD. But that doesn’t mean it’s not impacting your life. People with significant trauma often go about their personal and professional lives in a way that appears, from the outside, to be perfectly fine. But inside, they might feel deeply dissatisfied with life or have a sense that something is missing. Or they may privately struggle with anxiety, depression, and other symptoms they don’t even realize are trauma-related.

Unresolved trauma drives so much of our behavior in ways we can’t even see. In fact, all of our clients at The Sanctuary find that the issue they come to is actually an expression of a deeper wound. And this can include traumas we don’t even fully remember.

The Impact of Trauma on Your Body and Mind


Trauma has a number of consequences that, aside from leading to addiction, can compromise our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. Internalized trauma can erode our ability to trust people and form deep, lasting connections. And this can affect the extent to which we’re able to have healthy intimate or sexual relationships. It also puts us at risk of developing other mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression.


People living with trauma often live in a distressed state and have heightened stress responses. Stress causes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to flood our bodies. And while this natural response is designed to keep us safe, we’re not meant to sustain it for long periods of time. Doing so can be hard on the body, and lead to health impacts like:

  • Inflammation
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Digestive issues
  • Muscle pain
  • Burnout and exhaustion

All of this, of course, is in addition to an increased risk for substance addiction and the dangers that come along with it.

How Unresolved Trauma Changes Your Life

We’re often affected by deeply held wounds in a way that doesn’t seem directly related. We may even be well aware that we’re experiencing certain challenges, but be unaware that they stem from our unresolved trauma.

These core wounds can show up in our lives in all kinds of ways. They may be lurking deep in our subconscious for years, and come to the surface when we’re triggered. Because of the preexisting “map” of trauma in our mind, an experience or interaction that may just be annoying under normal circumstances could send us into a spiral of intensifying trauma symptoms. And these can even escalate into PTSD.

Living an Unlived Life

Because it’s such a common response to dissociate from trauma, it often cuts us off from our own emotions. And when that happens, we’re cut off from being able to fully engage with life. This is how so many people end up living unlived lives. “When we are traumatized, we lose contact with our real and authentic emotions,” says Dayton. “They become covered by psychological defenses and emotional armoring. When we cannot access our true emotions, we cannot put them into words and create meaningful scenarios out of the events in our lives.”

As long as we don’t address our trauma, it stays with us, changing the way we see ourselves and others. Unresolved trauma influences how we do everything in life – how we show up in our relationships, in our work, and in the world.

Healing from trauma is not an easy process, but it’s a necessary part of the journey to realizing our full selves. And at The Sanctuary, you have the opportunity to do this in a safe and supported way. If self-soothing with substances only masks trauma and prolongs its effects, what can we do to really feel better?

Let’s explore this further.

Why it’s Important to Treat Addiction and Trauma Together

As long as trauma remains, so is the need to use drugs and alcohol. And even those who do manage to stay sober under these circumstances may not necessarily feel their lives are joyful or fulfilling. “Without helping individuals cope with their terror, shame, fear, and isolation, there is no upside to sobriety for them,” says McMahon.

This is often why people end up at The Sanctuary after years – even decades – of trying unsuccessfully to get sober. Because the vast majority of mainstream addiction treatment focuses on managing the symptoms of addiction – when addiction itself is a symptom of something deeper.

“Given the strong correlation between addiction and trauma,” says McMahon, “it is essential that programs have a more comprehensive process to offer the clients they serve. Trauma and addiction need to be treated as co-occurring and interrelated.”

But when you heal holistically from both trauma and addiction, there is a serious incentive for committing to the process. And that’s because this healing journey can radically change your life.

Post-Traumatic Growth

For the past 25 years, trauma researchers have explored the potential for negative experiences to bring on positive change. This phenomenon – called post-traumatic growth – results in benefits like “a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth.”

The theory of post-traumatic growth, or PTG, uses the following factors to measure growth after trauma:

  • Appreciation of life
  • Relationships with others
  • New possibilities in life
  • Personal strength
  • Spiritual change

The journey of healing from trauma often involves several stages. These can include:

  • Being deeply disturbed by an event
  • Going through a period of distress and confusion
  • Having your previously held beliefs shaken
  • Seeking out a new understanding to make sense of what happened

As a result of the healing process, “People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life,” says Tedeschi. He also points out that it’s important to “allow people to understand that this may be a possibility for themselves.” And, he says, this is a “fairly normal process” if and when trauma occurs.

A Journey of Self-Discovery

This hero’s journey is what The Sanctuary’s program is based on. Our holistic treatment approach guides clients through:

  1. Shedding your story: Clearing out old, limiting beliefs to make room for new possibilities
  2. Shadow work: Accessing and resolving issues that lie below your normal level of awareness
  3. Envisioning the life you want: Getting in touch with your true desires
  4. Making your vision a reality: Integrating what you learned into your present life

This journey empowers you to emerge as your stronger self. And this not only improves your life, but allows you to show up more fully in your relationships with others. And in this way, we genuinely reduce our feelings of isolation and aloneness – by forming real connections, without the need for substances.

Healing Avenues at The Sanctuary

One former client describes her treatment experience at The Sanctuary this way:

“I didn’t know what to expect, but the work exceeded every expectation I could have had. Where once I was blind, now I can see. More importantly, when I inevitably become blind again, I now know how to restore my vision by myself using the tools I gathered here.”

Here’s how our program helps clients get there:

A Safe, Loving Environment

Our team uses their expertise to guide you through a journey that’s all your own. This not only creates the level of safety you need to begin vulnerable work but models healthy relationships. By interacting with your treatment team and recovery peers in a trusting and supportive way, you develop new reference points for relationships in your daily life.

Recovery Coaching and Aftercare

Recovery isn’t just about rehab. It’s about applying what you learn during this intensive experience in a real, tangible way. At The Sanctuary, we start preparing you for life after rehab right away, through education and skill-building while you’re in treatment. We then support you for 90 days after graduating from our program with hands-on continuing care. And, we make sure you have a long-term support network in place. Our alumni group holds weekly calls and is free for life, so you can always stay connected to your Sanctuary family.

Treatment Methods

Our approach is rooted in cutting-edge addiction science and utilizes a variety of clinical and holistic healing methods. This gives our clients ample opportunities to discover what works best for them. To achieve the sustainable transformation that our program creates, we use:

  • IV therapies to help you detox, return to baseline faster and get the most out of your time in treatment
  • Alternative therapies for treatment-resistant PTSD, such as ketamine-assisted treatment
  • Psychotherapy
  • Energy medicine
  • Nutrition, supplements, and experiential therapies to repair the brain and body
  • Practical tools for processing and releasing emotions like fear, anger, and shame

This complete recovery journey does far more than help you manage symptoms. It helps you rewrite your own story – and create a life that’s not based in addiction and trauma. As one program graduate says:

“The experience at The Sanctuary has been overwhelmingly positive. Overall, the services provided and lessons learned have been extremely beneficial to my well-being and personal growth in the areas of trauma and addiction recovery, stress reduction, and lifestyle management.”

Find out how positive your experience can be in life beyond trauma and addiction. Contact us today to learn more.

Kelley Alexander JD. photo

Kelley Alexander JD.  is the co-director of The Sanctuary at Sedona and has worked over the last decade to develop its innovative Integrative Addiction Recovery Program that has helped hundreds of clients to be recovered from addiction and co-occurring disorders. Through her pioneering work, Kelley and her team at The Sanctuary also work with clients to overcome issues related to codependency, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A JD and former practicing attorney, Kelley holds a BA in World Religions and has done graduate work in psychology. She is an ordained minister, certified shamanic breathwork facilitator, and a graduate of the Four Winds Healing The Light Body School, the premier energy medicine program founded by Alberto Villoldo. Kelley has also been a student of Dr. Joe Dispenza since 2009. She is a member of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology and the Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. She is a frequent lecturer at seminars and conferences throughout the United States.
[email protected]