What is the Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction? Photo

What is the Relationship Between Trauma and Addiction?

Intrusive thoughts.


Constantly feeling on edge.

Always being on alert.

Living with trauma can be isolating as you struggle to make sense of your ever-shifting moods. It can also feel incredibly exhausting to deal with all of this over and over, day in and day out. It’s no surprise, then, that so many trauma sufferers struggle with substance use. Substances promise immediate – if momentary – relief from the constant emotional stress.

The cyclical nature of trauma symptoms can make us pessimistic about our prospects of ever feeling better. But what’s important is that we don’t give up on ourselves and that we’re willing – even a little bit – to try something new. Because it’s never too late to make a completely transformational change. We see it happen at The Sanctuary all the time.

There’s nothing weird about struggling with trauma. It’s okay to go through difficulties and for them to affect you, even now. But you don’t have to do it forever. By identifying, processing, and healing from trauma, you can put it to rest so it stops taking over your life.

What is Trauma and How do I Know if I’m Traumatized?

People often use the term casually, but what does being traumatized actually mean?

Trauma occurs when something so disturbing happens that it overpowers your ability to manage it. It’s simply too much for your system to handle. Not processing it, however, can cause problems down the road. When the effects of trauma do show up, they may look like:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Heightened startle response
  • Anger or irritability
  • Social isolation
  • Mental fog and fatigue
  • Disruption to your sleep patterns
  • Self-blame, guilt, and shame
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Physical pain

We may have a trauma response immediately following the situation, or much later in life. In fact, we may not even realize in the moment that something is traumatic. Because it’s common to be affected by the trauma we don’t remember, we may not even know exactly where it comes from. Trauma sometimes, but not always, leads to PTSD.

Anything can cause trauma because everyone handles emotional stress differently. Comparing our stories to those of others that seem more extreme is a common experience of trauma. But trauma is relative, and your experience of it is legitimate.

How Trauma can Lead to Substance Abuse

There’s a strong relationship between trauma and substance use disorders (SUDs). One study on the relationship between SUDs, early childhood trauma and PTSD confirms that “Particularly, the link between trauma exposure and substance abuse has been well-established.” This is largely due to trauma sufferers’ attempts to self-soothe their mental and emotional pain:

“Early traumatic experience may increase risk of substance use disorders (SUDs) because of attempts to self-medicate or to dampen mood symptoms associated with a dysregulated biological stress response.

Physically or emotionally traumatized people are at much higher risk for drug use and SUDs, and the co-occurrence of these disorders is associated with inferior treatment outcomes. People with PTSD may use substances in an attempt to reduce their anxiety and to avoid dealing with trauma and its consequences.”

Living with the effects of trauma can be uncomfortable, unsettling, and exhausting. And substances provide relief from that. While trauma makes us feel negative, fearful, and constantly on high alert, drugs and alcohol make us feel good – at least initially. But this doesn’t last, and the consequences of using substances to cope can ultimately make our problems far worse.

Self-Medicating Trauma Reinforces Addiction

Humans are highly adaptable. As such, we’re very good at quieting what’s going on internally so we appear normal and functional on the outside. While this may help us keep it together in the short term, it poses a long-term danger to our well-being. Many of us go through life on autopilot, acting from our unhealed traumas without even realizing they run the show. And if we’re not intentional about how we respond to our trauma, our subconscious might create its own strategies.

Using substances to quiet the effects of trauma is a recipe for addiction. That’s because over time, your brain learns to associate drugs or alcohol with the reward of relief from negative emotions. Addiction rewires your brain’s dopamine reward system, which is designed for your survival. Therefore, your brain comes to believe that you need these substance to survive. That’s why getting sober isn’t just a matter of willpower. Addiction overrides the ability to simply “quit.”

How Substance Use can Lead to Trauma

Substance abuse is a risk factor for trauma. This is due to a number of reasons:

  • Using substances at an early age, while the brain is still developing, can increase stress hormones that heighten your stress response.
  • Lowering your inhibitions can lead to unsafe situations that may cause further trauma.
  • Drugs and alcohol affect your brain chemistry in a way that worsens the effects of PTSD.

Substances allow us to disconnect from ourselves. And the more unconscious our behavior is, the more likely we are to play out patterns that reinforce our limiting beliefs.

Substance Use and PTSD

There’s also a very strong relationship between substance use disorders and PTSD. While normally associated with veterans, PTSD can happen to anyone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.”

The link between substance issues and unresolved trauma is so strong that research shows levels of trauma correspond to the severity of substance abuse. One study examining this relationship among patients in an urban setting found that the “level of substance use, particularly cocaine, strongly correlated with levels of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as current PTSD symptoms.”

If you struggle with the effects of trauma, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s is far more common than you might think. As the same study notes, “Traumatic life experience, such as physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect, occurs at alarmingly high rates and is considered a major public health problem in the United States.”

Trauma, the Brain and Addictive Behaviors

Our fight, flight or freeze response – which is what’s triggered when we’re attacked, threatened or shocked – takes place in the limbic brain. This response is natural and necessary to our survival. But if we don’t do anything to address trauma, we can get stuck in that response. Our bodies aren’t meant to be constantly flooded with stress hormones. When this happens, it takes a huge toll on our mental, physical and spiritual health. This is why trauma affects the way our brain functions. Instead of being directed to the rational, compassionate part of the brain, fear redirects resources to the limbic brain.

Trauma in Early Childhood

According to the above study, “Early trauma exposure is well known to significantly increase the risk for a number of psychiatric disorders in adulthood.” That’s because the brain is developing at this age, and ongoing trauma that takes place during childhood affects its development. This increases susceptibility to substance abuse and other mental health disorders including major depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD.

There is no quick fix for what happens to the mind, body, soul and spirit as a result of trauma. As long as the root cause remains, every time you’re triggered, it can reoccur. And when that trigger overwhelms your coping strategies, you’re more likely to go back to using substances – even if you have the best intentions not to.

That’s where the healing journey comes in.

Healing the Brain From Trauma

We now know that trauma responses take place in the limbic brain. What’s interesting about this is that this part of the brain is subconscious. Actually, most of the brain activity that governs our actions is going on in the background, outside of our awareness. That’s why healing the brain from trauma requires us to dig into the subconscious to find out what’s driving our pain.

When we’re triggered, our reaction takes palce immediately, before we can think about it. When we’re in a situation we can’t resolve, our brain develops a strategy to deal with it, and that strategy gets stored in the limbic brain. Then, anytime we’re triggered, the strategy is reactivated. And when that happens, we relive the emotions of that past experience as if they’re happening right now. To heal from trauma, we need to break this cycle.

A Sanctuary for Healing From Trauma and Addiction

Here at The Sanctuary at Sedona, we work with you to:

  • Change deeply held beliefs that are rooted in your trauma.
  • Clear the imprints of trauma in your energetic field.
  • Repair your brain from the damage caused by trauma.
  • Increase your resiliency in the face of future challenges.

Let’s take a closer work at how this works.

Treating Trauma Holistically

Conventional rehab often focuses on treating the symptoms of addiction. But this overlooks addiction’s driving force: underlying trauma.

Holistic treatment understands that we need to look at the whole picture: all of the factors that got you to where you are now. You are not an illness, a chemical imbalance or a disorder. You are a whole person, and you deserve a healing program that treats you as such.

An Integrated Approach to Addiction and Trauma Recovery

We store trauma in the body. It affects our mind, spirit and soul. That’s why, to recover sustainably, we need to heal it in all of those places. Holistic trauma and addiction treatment at The Sanctuary takes all of this into account. And just like the systems of our body are connected, our therapies work together in a layered, integrated approach. When these come together, they create a synergistic effect that can help change happen in a faster, deeper, longer-lasting way.

A More Thorough Healing Experience

Our healing modalities work together to release trauma from the body, access it in your subconscious, and bring it into your awareness so we can address it in our sessions. We intentionally offer a wide variety of therapies, so you can learn what works best for you. These may include:

  • Energy medicine
  • Depth psychology
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Trauma release exercises (TRE)
  • Somatic experiencing (SEP)
  • Acceptance commitment therapy
  • Holotropic breathwork
  • Shadow work
  • Inner child therapy
  • Individual and group process therapy
  • Eco-therapy
  • Sound healing
  • Gut health and nutrition

… and more.

Instead of running programs based in past traumas, we can clear those traumas to be more available for the present moment. And by healing ourselves and creating new beliefs that are more helpful in our present lives, we can be move aligned with who we are now.

The Sanctuary’s empowering healing program is about implementing real life changes. You won’t just learn how to remedy your symptoms. You’ll gain a whole new perspective for relating to yourself and the world around you.

Building Skills and Resilience

Many people in the world live with significant trauma, whether from their childhood or adult life. But many of these people also have incredible resiliency – and you can too.

Through post-traumatic growth, you can use this healing experience to bring forth your strengths and discover your true gifts. And the changes you make here can completely change your life. As one of our former clients says:

“Practitioners are amazing and this time here has literally changed the course of my life.”

Another program graduate calls The Sanctuary:

“An amazing place that changes lives if you show up and do the work.”

Learn how you can heal the wounds of the past, so you can be fully engaged in the present – contact us today.