Trauma and substance use often go hand in hand. At least 50% of the population has experienced a traumatic event in their lives. Approximately 6% of people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Any of these individuals are at a greater risk than others of developing substance abuse disorder.

But even though many people with addiction issues have traumatic experiences in their history, traditional treatments for substance abuse haven’t always addressed trauma. It’s a sensitive subject. Historically, treating trauma has involved bringing up memories of the incident, which could re-traumatize someone that’s not ready for this level of processing. But ignoring the experience doesn’t result in the holistic healing that someone with a trauma and substance abuse history needs. The Seeking Safety model was developed to help patients move forward at a pace that’s ideal for them.

What Is Seeking Safety?

Seeking Safety is a treatment model that was designed to help individuals with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorder. Research for this approach was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and began in the 1990s. More than 20 studies contributed to the final version of the Seeking Safety manual, which was published in 2002.

Unlike previous studies, these concentrated on people with complicated mental health histories. Their symptoms were complex and intertwined with features of severe PTSD and substance use disorder.

The studies revealed that this model significantly improves symptoms of trauma and addiction. It’s the only effective model that was developed for individuals with these unique needs.

Why Does Seeking Safety Work?

Individuals with complex symptoms of psychological conditions have a high relapse rate. For many of these people, substance abuse offers a way of coping with and escaping from distressing thoughts and feelings. If their co-occurring mental health disorder isn’t treated along with the addiction, it can exacerbate the cycle of relapse and sobriety.

But in cases of severe trauma or extreme dysregulation, patients need to progress slowly toward healing. Establishing safety is essential. Without it, trauma and addiction patients may find their distress too extreme to benefit from treatment.

Seeking Safety is an integrative model. Every strategy addresses the trauma and addiction at the same time. Therefore, patients develop skills that help them move through both issues and reduce symptoms that make them feel unsafe.

How Does Seeking Safety Work?

The Seeking Safety Manual sets forth the tenets of the program and offers a structure for integrating it into therapy sessions. It progresses through 25 topics, using methodologies such as journaling, mindfulness practices and role play to improve coping and life skills.

However, the program should be customized to the individual patient. Therapists and counselors are trained to gauge and respond to the patients’ needs. They will have to determine which strategies are appropriate and effective for each patient.

The goal is always the same, however. Seeking Safety aims to help patients become and feel safe. This can mean something different for everyone. However, the Seeking Safety model sets forth the following basic elements of safety:

  • The ability to take care of yourself, including accessing adequate housing, nourishment and medical care
  • Finding a constructive support network
  • Managing symptoms of trauma, such as ruminating thoughts and flashbacks
  • Coping with distress in healthy ways
  • Avoiding risky, dangerous and impulsive behaviors
  • Feeling comfortable and safe within yourself

Teaching Life Skills

During a Seeking Safety session, a therapist might start by helping the patient take care of basic needs, such as finding housing or health insurance. The patient might need resources, such as a phone. They might also need to role play their interactions with a landlord or insurance agent.

Some other life skills that patients work on in this program include:

  • Feeling safe in the community while taking care of basic needs, such as grocery shopping
  • Regular exercise
  • Self-care
  • Setting goals
  • Creating a safety plan

Communication Skills

Healthy communication reduces social anxiety and helps patients clearly assess every situation. Some of the communication skills that Seeking Safety reinforces are:

  • Asking for help
  • Setting boundaries
  • Making agreements
  • Speaking honestly

Changing False Beliefs

Most of our behavior is a reaction to certain thinking patterns. Seeking Safety urges patients to rethink limiting beliefs, establishing constructive affirmations, such as:

  • I can try to cope with this if I stay safe.
  • This feeling isn’t permanent.
  • Start now, and the feelings will follow.
  • What could I tell myself to help me feel better?
  • I only need to focus on what matters.

Is Seeking Safety Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Most people in active addiction have some level of belief that they will never be able to cope with their trauma symptoms without using substances. The idea that they might have to suffer with the mental and physical anguish from the traumatic experience forever makes them lose hope.

When you’re stuck in this belief loop, you feel safer doing what you’re used to. Unhealthy coping skills, like drinking or using drugs, are familiar. Leading a life of sobriety can be terrifying.

But Seeking Safety aims to change this cycle of thinking. By establishing safety first, the protocol boosts self-confidence and self-efficacy. It’s much easier to believe that you can feel safe within your thoughts and body when anxious thinking patterns aren’t sabotaging you.

Seeking Safety draws on principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients change their thinking patterns and limiting beliefs as well as their actions. In this way, it trains the central nervous system to self-soothe in the face of difficult life events without requiring drugs or alcohol to deal with them.

The Seeking Safety Therapeutic Model at Burning Tree West

Burning Tree West has implemented the Seeking Safety therapeutic model for those affected by Substance Abuse and Trauma/PTSD.

As noted by our EMDR-Trained Clinical Director, Joshua New, LCSW,” Pushing a client too early into intensive trauma work such as EMDR can be harmful and problematic until the newly sober individual has developed a strong recovery foundation and can regulate their emotions effectively. Seeking Safety allows our clients to address the symptoms of trauma without having to delve into their specific trauma narrative, thereby preventing a significant and often premature threat to their early sobriety.”

Seeking Safety is designed to concurrently address both PTSD and Substance Abuse Disorder for those in early recovery. “It’s a safe model to address trauma in early addiction treatment,” states Josh New, LCSW. “Seeking Safety is always the most discerning, safest way to attend to and address the symptoms of trauma in early sobriety. As our clients further develop their recovery and coping skills, we can then assess their individual readiness for more intensive trauma work.”

Personal growth always has some uncomfortable aspects to it. However, we approach mental trauma and addiction treatment with compassionate, evidence-based methods that are based on the Seeking Safety model. Burning Tree West offers in group and individual sessions to help you feel safe so that you can thrive in recovery.

At Burning Tree West, our goal is to provide our clients, age 18 – 30, a program that emphasizes the importance of life skills so they can become healthy, happy, self-supporting young adults in sobriety.