PTSD and Addiction

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that develops after an individual has experienced or witnessed a hazardous, terrifying, or shocking situation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is natural to experience both a psychological and physiological response during and shortly after traumatic events. Most people recover from the symptoms caused by this fight-or-flight response after the danger has passed, but those who do not may be diagnosed with PTSD.

PTSD is typically characterized by feelings of stress and fear, even in situations that are not inherently dangerous, but it manifests different symptoms in everyone. Any kind of traumatic event can trigger PTSD, and the event does not necessarily have to be dangerous. Sudden or unexpected events like the unanticipated loss of a loved one can also cause PTSD. In most cases, symptoms will arise within three months of the incident, but some people may not develop symptoms until years later. In order to receive a diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms must persist for more than 30 days and must be severe enough that they interfere with personal relationships or everyday life. A mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose the condition.

What Is PTSD?

The course of post-traumatic stress disorder varies among individuals. Some people may recover within a few months, whereas others will suffer for years. For some people, PTSD becomes a chronic condition that they must cope with every single day.

Anyone can develop PTSD after suffering a traumatic event, but certain careers put people at a higher risk of the condition than others because of the nature of the work. High-risk professions include firefighters, police officers, first responders and emergency medical personnel, journalists, healthcare workers, and military personnel.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), roughly 8 percent of the population will experience PTSD at some point in life. About 10 percent of women will develop PTSD at some point, as will 4 percent of men.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

People with post-traumatic stress disorder exhibit four main kinds of symptoms. According to the VA, these are:

  • Re-experiencing symptoms: bad memories, flashbacks, or nightmares of the event
  • Avoidance symptoms: refusing to talk or think about the event and avoiding situations or people that might remind the individual of the event
  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms: feeling jittery and hyperaware; always on the lookout for danger; feeling angry and irritable; having trouble sleeping
  • Cognition and mood symptoms: trouble remembering the event; negative thoughts and loss of interest in favorite activities; feelings of guilt or blame

It is natural to experience the above symptoms after any kind of traumatic event. If symptoms persist, though, they will likely affect all aspects of life, and a diagnosis of PTSD may be warranted.

Young children may experience PTSD differently than adults. In children under 6 years old, symptom might include:

  • Wetting the bed despite being potty trained
  • Forgetting how to communicate or being unable to talk
  • Acting out the traumatic event when playing
  • Acting unusually clingy with a parent or caregiver

What Are the Treatment Options for PTSD?

There are a variety of treatment options for PTSD. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, most people find success with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

There are several different kinds of therapy that can help clients confront and manage their symptoms. These therapies include exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, stress inoculation training, and virtual reality treatment. According to a review originally published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a safe and effective approach to treat both acute and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder; however, up to 50 percent of those who receive CBT will not experience relief for a variety of reasons, like comorbidity.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines comorbid conditions as two disorders or illnesses that occur in the same person at the same time. It is not unusual for addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD), to develop alongside PTSD. According to the United States VA, more than 20 percent of veterans who have PTSD are also suffering from SUD. Additionally, almost one out of every three veterans who seeks treatment for SUD also has PTSD.

What Is the Relationships between PTSD and Addiction?

Coping with the symptoms of PTSD is incredibly challenging, especially if they persist for an extended period of time. Because PTSD causes such emotional distress, people who suffer from it may attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

When individuals experience a traumatic event that prompts the fight-or-flight response, the brain actually releases dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of pleasure and relaxation. This natural response is the body’s way of coping with intense stress. When the event is over and dopamine levels return to normal, the affected individual may feel the need to compensate with drugs or alcohol. According to a review published in Alcohol Research & Health, it is common for alcohol use to increase following a traumatic event.

What Is the Relationships between PTSD and Addiction?

If you have a loved one suffering from both PTSD and addiction, it is never too late to reach out and offer your support, love, and encouragement. In many cases, familial support is exactly what an individual needs in order to seek treatment and eventually enter recovery. For these individuals, it’s important to seek out treatment that can effectively address the co-occurring disorders of addiction and PTSD via an integrated treatment plan.