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Episode 18

Understanding the Link Between Trauma, the Nervous System, and Addiction

Episode 18

In this episode, Clinical Therapist Brian Leidal walks us through his understanding, research, and expertise on the topic of trauma and addiction, and the link between. The foundation of any conversation or therapeutic work on trauma begins with a grounded nervous system and healthy connection: to others and to self.

According to Dr. Dan Siegel, trauma is some thing or event that overwhelms our ability to cope. Our ability to cope is dependent on life experiences, outside events, family, our practices. This is where substance use and other behavioral addictions come in—without the ability to cope effectively, these become short-term releases that can become destructive in the long run.

The foundation of any conversation or therapeutic work on trauma begins with a grounded nervous system and healthy connection: to others and to self. Brian gives examples from his own clinical approach at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy of how to dig beneath the surface of substance abuse and addiction.


Brian’s blog: Exploring the Link Between Trauma and Addiction

CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

Justin Sunseri’s Polyvagal Podcast

Johann Hari’s Ted Talk: Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong



Brian Leidal

Brian Leidal


Brian grew up in Michigan, where he learned at an early age to love and respect the outdoors. He took part in numerous adventures with the Boy Scouts of America, eventually earning the rank of Eagle Scout. His college years were spent at Michigan State University where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Parks and Recreation.

After graduating, Brian took on various outdoor seasonal jobs as a trip leader and outdoor educator for youth. He eventually moved to South Dakota and worked on the Native American reservations of the Great Plains. In 2010, he accepted a position at a residential treatment facility for male youth in Western Pennsylvania. He facilitated team building initiatives and climbing activities for the residents at the high ropes course, which was the beginning of his journey into experiential therapies. This cultivated a desire to attend graduate school for counseling. He completed his Master’s degree in Community Counseling with a specialization in addiction in May 2014.

Brian’s post-master’s work in inpatient drug and alcohol rehab helped him to hone his clinical skills with young adults struggling with addiction. Brian returned to facilitating team building and climbing with youth at a residential treatment facility, where he refined his group counseling skills and helped young people empower themselves through their experiences in the ropes course.

Brian joined the Open Sky team in April 2016 as a Family Services Therapist. Brian is passionate about working with the entire family, empowering each member to help shift the family system toward healthy dynamics. As a Family Services Therapist, he facilitated Family Quests and Parent Coaching for parents and families. He led more than 133 Family Quests and is continually inspired by the transformational work families accomplish over just two-and-a-half days in the field.

Brian appreciates the importance of parents working on themselves in parallel with their children. As both parents and students become more in tune with their emotions and patterns, the entire family system is changed and becomes healthier.

In his work as a Clinical Therapist, Brian utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a heavy emphasis on the student’s current somatic experience. He helps his students to understand how thoughts and thought patterns influence emotions, which then influence behaviors.   

When not in the field, Brian enjoys all aspects of the outdoors: hiking, climbing, camping, and generally exploring the world around him. Brian loves to read and enjoys getting immersed in a good work of fiction as well as topics related to his field of work. Brian is thrilled to work with an organization that combines his passions for therapy and adventure.


Therapy is about relationship. And the more that the client feels like I get them and I’m with them, the more that they will trust me in working with them in those “deep, dark” areas. Addiction and trauma are two of those “deep, dark” areas.

The Childhood Adverse Experiences Study basically showed that sustained stress caused biochemical changes in the brain and the body, and that creates increased risk of mental health disorders, substance use, traumatic experience, other health problems. So it’s all really connected.

Substance use, behavioral addictions—we could look at gambling, video games, food, sex—those things are all attempts to cope. Those things are all attempts to deal with a dysregulated nervous system.

There’s a lot of self-judgment, shame piled on our thoughts and our beliefs about ourselves and who we are. So, a big part of the process is actually being able to have compassion for oneself. I am doing the best I can. I am worth love and belonging. I am loved by my parents. I am loved by my peers.


Emily Fernandes

Emily Fernandes

Executive Director & Co-Founder

On a wilderness trip in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1995, Emily discovered she could combine two of her passions: working with youth and being outdoors. Since then, she has worked for Aspen Achievement Academy, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, and Connecticut Wilderness School. She was part of the founding team at Open Sky.

Emily worked as the lead therapist for adolescent girls for her first 5 years at Open Sky. Her areas of clinical expertise include depression, anxiety, grief and loss, trauma, self-harm, disordered eating, and adoption and attachment issues. Her clinical approach is informed by cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, family systems, and attachment theories. Relationship building through letter writing is a major focus of her work with students and families.

As a founder and owner of Open Sky, as well as the Clinical and Executive Director, Emily brings a breadth of knowledge with her background as a therapist, field guide, trainer, logistics coordinator, emergency responder, and field director, Emily is known for her direct, caring leadership style, her ability to inspire excellence in others, and her team oriented approach. The student treatment plan is her compass for her decision-making regarding Open Sky’s students, families, and employees.

Emily loves reading, writing, yoga, mountain biking, telemark skiing, rock climbing, spending time with friends and family, and cooking with foods from the local farmers’ market.


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