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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction

People suffering from PTSD often self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which can lead to addiction.

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD and AddictionPost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.

Those experiencing PTSD might turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate feelings of fear, anxiety and stress.

Most people who have suffered through traumatic events eventually overcome the anxiety, depression and agitation caused by those experiences. But when PTSD develops, these symptoms don’t just go away. They might last for months or years after the event.

PTSD can emerge as a result of witnessing or experiencing:

  • Military combat
  • Serious accidents and injury
  • Natural disasters
  • Acts of terrorism
  • Sexual or physical assault during childhood or as an adult
  • The death of a loved one

PTSD and drug addiction often co-occur in response to serious trauma. Getting a proper dual diagnosis is crucial to treating both conditions and getting sober.

Co-occurring PTSD and Addiction

PTSD changes brain chemistry in much the same way substance abuse and addiction do. Often, these disorders form at the same time and feed off one another. The same trauma that caused PTSD can also trigger a substance use disorder.

Nearly three-quarters of those surviving violent or abusive trauma report alcohol use disorders.

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Following a traumatic experience, the brain produces less endorphins, one of the chemicals that help us feel happy. People with PTSD may turn to alcohol and other mood-enhancing drugs, which increase endorphin levels. Over time, they may come to rely on drugs to relieve all of their feelings of depression, anxiety and irritability.

PTSD often causes people to feel disconnected from their friends and loved ones.

People with PTSD are more prone to violent outbursts and panic attacks, which can be difficult for family and friends to witness. Feelings of guilt over these outbursts can drive those with PTSD to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Continued use of alcohol or other drugs in this way can lead to an addiction.

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Symptoms and Effects of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD can change over time. Some symptoms might appear within three months of a traumatic episode, or it might take years until the disorder fully comes about.

PTSD impacts the parts of the brain associated with memory and emotions. A healthy brain can tell the difference between past memories and present experiences, but PTSD interferes with this process. Someone with PTSD might react to a current environment that reminds them of past trauma. The brain responds as though the person is still in the past, triggering fear, anxiety and stress.

Suicidal thoughts are some of the most dangerous symptoms of PTSD. Abusing drugs or alcohol can intensify these thoughts.

Alcohol and drug addiction are also affected by memory. An addicted person’s brain is susceptible to triggers, or places and people associated with drug use that can lead to cravings. PTSD and addiction triggers can intertwine and intensify symptoms of both disorders.

Categories of PTSD Symptoms

Intrusive Memories
  • Repeated memories of the traumatic episode
  • Night terrors about the event
  • Vivid flashbacks of traumatic episodes
  • Extreme physical reactions to reminders of the traumatic event
Avoidance
  • Attempting to avoid talking or thinking about the traumatic episode
  • Trying to avoid people, places and activities that trigger memories of the event
Drastic Changes in Thinking or Mood
  • Emotional numbness
  • Difficulty keeping close relationships
  • Being incapable of positive emotions
  • Lapses in memory
  • Negative feelings about self or others
Changes in Emotional Reactions
  • Irritability
  • Feeling “on guard” at all times
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Self-destructive behavior (binge drinking, reckless driving

It might be hard to recognize co-occurring addiction and PTSD. Someone suffering from PTSD might keep their drug and alcohol abuse from others because they feel ashamed. If a loved one seems to be increasingly depressed and withdrawn while exhibiting signs of intoxication, they might be struggling with a drug abuse problem.

If you think someone you care about is struggling with PTSD and addiction, call us now.

Treating PTSD and Addiction

Prolonged alcohol and drug abuse eventually rewires the brain’s neurocircuitry. Over time, the user needs the drug to feel normal. With enough time and use, the PTSD sufferer can become addicted.

Both disorders have a complex impact on the brain. It’s crucial to treat PTSD and drug addiction simultaneously to undo this damage.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help those with PTSD cope with their painful memories. Many inpatient and outpatient drug rehabs use CBT to treat addiction, as well. Clinics specializing in PTSD and addiction can coordinate CBT treatment plans for both disorders.

Physical exercise can be an effective part of PTSD and drug addiction recovery. The endorphins released during physical activity can soothe depression and anxiety. Doctors in specialized drug rehabs can also prescribe antidepressants to manage withdrawal symptoms and anxiety during detox.

Get in touch with a specialized treatment center to overcome PTSD and co-occurring addiction.

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