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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often diagnosed after someone witnesses or experiences a triggering event. Symptoms of this mental health condition can include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as thinking about or reliving the trauma in one’s mind. To counteract the symptoms such as anxiety and panic attacks, many individuals turn to substances such as drugs and alcohol to try and calm themselves down.

The National Center of PTSD reports that about 8 out of 100 Americans will have PTSD during their lifetime, and around 8 million adults will experience PTSD during any given year. Unfortunately, substance abuse disorders are commonly connected to co-occurring disorders such as PTSD. Almost 75%, or 3 out of 4 people, that survive violent or abusive trauma self-report alcohol use disorders.

What is PTSD?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a “disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” This mental health condition is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, and symptoms include severe anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, or nightmares.

The most common events that trigger PTSD include military combat, major accidents or injuries, natural disasters, acts of terrorism, sexual or physical assault during childhood or as an adult, or the death of a loved one.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

The memory and emotional functions of the brain are impacted in a person who has PTSD. While a healthy person can distinguish between past memories and present experiences, it is difficult for a person with PTSD. The condition can cause a person to see a present environment as a threat because it reminds them of past trauma. Symptoms can appear within a few months or up to a few years after the traumatic event(s).

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be divided into four main categories:

Intrusive Memories

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive distressing memories of the event
  • Night terrors
  • Vivid and intense flashbacks
  • Extreme physical reactions to reminders of the traumatic event

Avoidance

  • Emotional numbness of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma
  • Attempting to avoid any possible triggers of the event
  • Refusal to acknowledge events in the past

Emotional and Behavioral Changes

  • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping/insomnia
  • Feeling jumpy
  • Easily irritated and angered
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Negative feelings about self or others
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Self-destructive behaviors (binge drinking, reckless driving, self-harm)

Untreated, these symptoms will not get better over time. Instead, it is crucial to receive a diagnosis for PTSD to begin healing. People dealing with co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse and PTSD have the best chance of recovery when they receive treatment for PTSD and substance use disorder.

How is PTSD related to substance abuse?

When an individual self-medicates PTSD symptoms, they can be developing an addiction at the same time. Addiction can re-train the brain to function with doses of alcohol or drugs, and PTSD can also affect brain chemistry. When living with PTSD, the brain produces fewer endorphins such as serotonin, which is responsible for happiness. Drugs and alcohol can temporally provide these endorphins and briefly relieve the PTSD symptoms. As the sensation of relief wears off, someone can start a harmful cycle of frequently using more drugs or alcohol to keep feeling at ease.

The symptoms of addiction and PTSD are similar, and each condition makes the other worse. One example is that PTSD affects the brain’s memory function; alcohol and drug abuse also impact the brain’s memory function.

Treatment for PTSD and Addiction

While a loved one may hide their substance abuse disorder when dealing with addiction and PTSD, it is essential to receive treatment for both disorders. Because they can both have severe and prolonged effects on the brain, it is better to treat them as soon as possible. Addiction recovery treatment programs, such as dual diagnosis programs, should focus on combatting both disorders simultaneously.

Some effective therapies for PTSD are:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also known as CBT, was named by the National Center for PTSD as one of the most effective therapy methods to treat PTSD and addiction. CBT involves a conscious effort to change thinking patterns and help individuals with PTSD cope with their painful trauma.
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a type of therapy for people with PTSD that helps a person process and recover from trauma.

Are you or a loved one struggling with PTSD and addiction? You are not alone. We are here for you, and we are here to help.