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What Is PTSD, Who Can Get It, and What Is the Link to Addiction?

A traumatic experience has the power to turn your life upside down, distort your perception of the world, and drastically alter your ability to function as you once did.

When trauma negatively transforms the way you live your life, this is called PTSD.

What is PTSD?

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a mental health condition that affects around twelve million adults in the US every year. As its name suggests, this condition develops through experiencing trauma, which can come in the form of traumatic or distressing events.

In any case where trauma exists in an individual’s life, the propensity to develop PTSD is down to the individual and, as yet, it is not clear why some develop the disorder and others do not. However, evidence suggests that those who have been previously diagnosed with anxiety or depression, those with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and those who have experienced historical abuse as a child or teenager, are more likely to develop PTSD in the future, following a triggering event or events.

What we do know is that these triggering traumatic events can come in many forms such as:

Serious road traffic accidents
Violent assaults, including sexual assault
Witnessing a serious assault
Traumatic birthing experiences
Surviving a natural disaster
Witnessing or suffering acts of terrorism
The death of a loved one

What Are the Symptoms?

While everyone’s experience of PTSD can be different in the way it presents itself, the most common symptoms are:

  • Insomnia: The lack of ability to sleep, as well as recurring nightmares depicting the event or traumatic experience.
  • Hallucinations: Both visual and auditory. Sometimes these hallucinations can make the sufferer question reality, and in some cases, sufferers even report experiencing physical sensations.
  • PTSD related illness: This can come in the form of feeling generally unwell, along with nausea, heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, panic, headaches, chest pains, stomach-ache, and anxiety. The physical effects are likely because stress, fear, and anxiety cause our brains to release adrenaline and cortisol. Though these hormones can help keep us safe in dangerous situations, they can cause undesired physical responses when suffering with PTSD.
  • Guilt: Oftentimes, sufferers blame themselves for the fact the event happened, or for not acting differently at the time of the event. This prevents sufferers from coming to terms with what has happened and perpetuates the ongoing suffering through purposely reliving the scenario(s).
  • Avoidance: Some individuals attempt to deny the event happened at all by avoiding places, situations, or people who trigger memories of the trauma.
  • Emotional numbing: Some sufferers seek to ignore their trauma. Like “avoidance,” this symptom has an element of denial, but is centered more around isolation and withdrawing themselves out of fear of feeling.
  • Flashbacks: These can occur at any time and can often have crippling effects in which the sufferer experiences many more symptoms as a result. These flashbacks can come in the form of smells, tastes, sounds, vivid memories, or visions of the event, as well as partial images from the event, too.
  • Hyper-vigilance or hyperarousal: This is when the sufferer remains in a constant state of extreme alertness. In this case, the person experiencing PTSD will be easily alarmed and highly anxious. This symptom may also present itself as anger, frustration, and irritability, as well as an inability to concentrate

This list is by no means exhaustive, and as research into PTSD continues, we are always learning about the ways in which this disorder affects its sufferers.

The Link Between PTSD and Addiction

According to the National Center for PTSD, “46.4% of individuals with lifetime PTSD also met criteria for SUD (Substance Use Disorder)” and “Women with PTSD were 2.48 times more likely to meet criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence and 4.46 times more likely to meet criteria for drug abuse or dependence than women without PTSD. Men were 2.06 and 2.97 times more likely, respectively.”

With these statistics, it becomes clear that there is a direct link between PTSD and addiction. And with the known effects of drugs and alcohol, at least in the early stages of using these to self-medicate, it really isn’t that surprising, though it is disconcerting.

Often, people suffering with PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of feeling in control, whether that be to gain control of their mood, their circumstances, or to feel as though they have lifted themselves out of an emotionally dark place.

Temporarily, this may seem to be the case. As mentioned earlier, anxiety and stress (a prolific symptom of PTSD) causes our brains to release negative hormones, leading PTSD sufferers to attempt to counteract the feelings that come with such hormones—using drugs and alcohol.

Drugs and alcohol affect the brain stem, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. Basically, that means that they disturb the way the brain functions and imitate natural chemicals. In a sense, drugs and alcohol almost literally combat our stress hormones.

Some drugs flood our brain with dopamine, the happy hormone, and send us into a temporary state of bliss or euphoria, sometimes even numbness. And so, at least for a short time, PTSD sufferers may feel as though they have escaped a reality they wish were fiction.

Now, with this self-medication they might feel as though they can finally manage the unmanageable, feel generally better, dull pain, silence memories, and create the safety they long to feel in everyday life.

Unfortunately, though, as someone continues to seek the feelings created through drug and alcohol use, our bodies require more of the substance to feel the same effects. This continues until an addiction develops and, by then, that first “high” or feeling is almost impossible to achieve without much larger, and even more dangerous amounts.

Ultimately, PTSD and addiction can magnify symptoms of both disorders and lead to them feeding off one another.

How to Spot the Signs of PTSD and SUD

There are a few signs to look out for if you suspect that someone might be trying to deal with PTSD and SUD simultaneously.

For many in this position, they are stuck in a cycle of wanting to relieve crippling PTSD symptoms, while satisfying the compulsion to feed an addiction.

This addiction temporarily alleviates PTSD symptoms, although perpetuates negative symptoms in the long term.

Look out for:

  • Changes in personality
  • Social isolation
  • Erratic behavior
  • Moodswings
  • A need to inexplicably borrow money
  • Inability to function as you would normally expect

When addiction and PTSD exist beside one another in this way, this is known as a co-occurring disorder, and with more focused support, addiction and PTSD can be treated simultaneously in an integrative approach.

Our specialists have experience and full understanding of both PTSD and SUD, including the ways in which the disorders interact with one another. Here at Jackson House, through specialized treatment, addiction psychiatry, evidence-based therapy, and more, we can equip you with the treatment, tools, and support necessary to regain control of your life.

If you, or someone you care about, is dealing with PTSD and SUD as a co-occurring disorder, reach out to us today.

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