PTSD and Addiction

Addiction is a mental health disorder that often co-occurs with other psychological disorders. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental illness that is often linked with addiction. A 2012 study found that 97% of individuals in their substance abuse group had PTSD or trauma exposure. Only 36.6% of the participants in the group without substance abuse disorder had the same diagnosis or exposure. PTSD and addiction are so prevalent because people with post-traumatic stress disorder tend to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Plus, people with addiction problems tend to engage in risky behavior, which could make them vulnerable to trauma.

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the five major types of anxiety disorders. It develops in response to an experience in which your personal safety was threatened. You can also develop PTSD by witnessing a traumatic event happen to someone else.

Some experiences that contribute to PTSD include:

  • Abuse
  • Assault
  • Military combat
  • Accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Acts of terrorism

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. Experts believe that PTSD occurs when the central nervous system isn’t able to regulate itself after a distressing incident.

You’ve probably heard people suggest that you should just shake off a negative experience. This concept has some value behind it. When you are exposed to trauma, your nervous system goes into a fight, flight or freeze state. Your body directs blood flow and energy to the areas that need it, and your brain adjusts to protect you from harm.

During and after the event, your body begins to shift back into homeostasis, which requires changes in your neurological patterns and levels of brain chemicals. Certain activities, such as moving your body, doing deep breathing and orienting yourself to your surroundings, help you regulate.

In fact, after rabbits experience a traumatic moment, they shake involuntarily. Once the tremors subside, the animals don’t demonstrate residual effects from the trauma.

But if your body can’t go through the motions to regulate its internal state, you get trapped in the traumatic loop. This can happen when you’re sedated during surgery or in shock after a violent occurrence. It can also occur if you’re told to shake it off and your experience isn’t validated. Allowing yourself to process the emotions during and after a trauma reduce your likelihood of experiencing PTSD.

But certain people are at a greater risk of developing PTSD. For example, women are more likely to have PTSD than men. Your genetics and previous experiences with stress also play a role.

Signs of PTSD

Signs and symptoms of PTSD may be physical, psychological or behavioral. Some of these symptoms are indicative of other mental illnesses, which can make diagnosing PTSD difficult. For example, some people lose recall of the distressing incident. When they seek help for their symptoms, they may be diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

Identifying PTSD is essential for recovery, however. A dual diagnosis allows you to incorporate techniques for addressing both issues during treatment.

Some common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks that make you feel as though you’re re-living the event
  • Nightmares
  • Scary, intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance of people, places or situations that remind you of the event
  • Avoidance of intense emotions
  • Feeling jumpy or easily startled
  • Tension, anxiety and irritation
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Violent or aggressive outbursts
  • Extreme emotions
  • Distorted recall or memory loss
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Loss of interest in activities that you used to enjoy

The magnitude or severity of the event doesn’t necessarily predict the occurrence of PTSD. For example, some children develop PTSD after watching a violent movie or going to a funeral. Therefore, it’s possible that many people are suffering today because they have some level of PTSD from events in their past.

PTSD and Addiction

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, you are three times more likely to abuse substances and 14 times more likely to be diagnosed with substance abuse disorder than someone without PTSD. One of the reasons that PTSD and addiction go hand in hand is that PTSD and substance abuse both affect your neurochemicals.

After you’re involved in or witness a disturbing event, your endorphin levels drop. You feel the withdrawal of these mood-enhancing chemicals as anxiety, irritability, low energy, exhaustion or depression. You may even experience physical pain. Taking drugs or alcohol can give you temporary relief.

But using substances prevents your body from achieving homeostasis. That means that your neurotransmitters and hormones are blocked from completing their natural cycles. You may think that you feel better if you numb your emotions with substances, but you actually choke off your ability to heal.

Your addiction can make you more sensitive to triggers that bring up PTSD flashbacks. Using drugs can prevent you from sleeping well, exacerbating your nightmares and behavioral symptoms. Drug cravings can exacerbate your PTSD symptoms, and PTSD symptoms can intensify your drug cravings.

Therefore, it’s especially important to get an assessment for PTSD and addiction. If you don’t treat the PTSD, it can limit your ability to heal from the substance abuse disorder. A dual diagnosis also helps you understand your PTSD and addiction. It allows you to be more aware of your triggers and be gentle with yourself as you move through recovery.

Treatment for PTSD and Addiction

If you have a dual diagnosis of PTSD and addiction, you can customize your treatment plan with methods that work best for you. Many treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder also work for addiction. Therefore, most approaches will be constructive no matter what.

But there are many evidence-based treatments that work specifically for PTSD. These can help patients reconsolidate memories and process the feelings that became trapped in their minds and bodies.

In some cases, stagnant emotions can be processed relatively quickly, opening the door for substance abuse treatments to work more effectively. PTSD treatments don’t eliminate the memories of the trauma. Instead, they help you experience those memories as incidents that happened in the past. With successful treatment, you won’t feel as though you’re reliving the event. Treatment will also minimize the symptoms of PTSD.

Some common treatments for PTSD include:

  • Talk therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Relaxation and mindfulness techniques
  • Alternative and holistic therapy

Treating any mental disorder is a lifelong process. You don’t need to stay in rehab forever. However, you should be aware of the signs of post-traumatic stress orders and triggers for addiction so that you can manage both conditions throughout recovery.

Failing to address underlying mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can contribute to relapse. At Renewal Lodge, we perform a full assessment and offer individualized treatment so that we get to know each patient and provide options that work best for them. We offer dedicated services for people with a dual diagnosis so that they can get to the root of the problem and flourish.

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My name is John Bruna, co-founder of the Mindfulness in Recovery® Institute, and more importantly, a grateful member of the recovery community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my recovery in 1984. Of course, I did not achieve continuous recovery through willpower or my own efforts, but through the guidance and caring support of countless others that selflessly taught me how to live through the 12 Steps.

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