How Does PTSD Affect Addiction?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a severe psychological disorder that can be life-threatening. A person who suffers from PTSD is the survivor of violence against his or her person, or the witness of violence against another person. The violence can be physical, sexual or verbal. PTSD can occur in children or adults.

Fear is a natural response to a perceived threat. Physiological or real physical changes occur in the brain and body in response to fear; it is better known as the flight or fight response. A person suffering from PTSD will experience this flight or fight response even though an actual threat may not be present.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 7.7 million American adults suffer from PTSD. War veterans were the first to be diagnosed with this debilitating disorder. But once the disorder began to be studied, it was obvious that many other experiences beyond war could cause PTSD such as earthquake, death or illness of a close friend or family member, accidents, a mugging. Scientists are studying the mechanism in the brain associated with fear, with fear memories, genetics and brain proteins.

The intensity of PTSD can lead to other mental health disorders such as depression or panic. A child or an adult suffering from PTSD will frequently turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate the fear and other feelings. When the PTSD remains untreated and the drugs and alcohol are consumed, the sufferer is likely to grow more depressed with a greater sense of hopelessness accompanied by a growing addiction to substances.

People who suffer from PTSD can experience a range of physical and emotional responses that include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Avoidance
  • Feeling numb
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Avoidance of people and places
  • Inability to remember aspects of the trauma
  • Negative emotional state such as anger, shame, guilt
  • Little satisfaction in life
  • Hypervigilance
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Easily startled
  • Self-destructive behavior

Children suffering from PTSD can experience different symptoms.

Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol simply worsens the problem and further distorts the brain and body’s ability to function and respond in normal ways. The longer one suffers from untreated PTSD the symptoms become more difficult to manage. Drugs and alcohol add to the problem and symptoms as the cycle of addiction takes over. As the person grows tolerant of the drugs and/or alcohol, the body and the brain will require more substances to be consumed. Increased consumption of drugs and alcohol worsen the symptoms of PTSD.

Help is available and treatment does work. Treatment of the addiction, the addictive behavior and the PTSD must occur simultaneously. Only dual diagnosis treatment or co-occurring treatment can address both the addiction and the PTSD simultaneously. Without simultaneous treatment, the sufferer will not find release from his or her suffering.

Treatment Alternatives provides those suffering from PTSD and drug and alcohol addiction with the support, the therapeutic treatment, and the life skills to overcome active addiction and diminish the impact PTSD may have on his or her life. Treatment for both disorders is necessary before a client can hope to regain his or her life and become productive members of the community again.


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