For many people, PTSD and addiction go hand in hand. As many as 66 percent of people who suffer from one of these conditions also struggle with the other.
Why are PTSD and Addiction So Commonly Found Together?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, is a reaction to a past traumatic, stressful event that occurs after the initial event is already over. It can be acute or chronic, sometimes lasting years after the traumatic incident. The patient’s heart races, the fight-or-flight reaction activates, and the stressful memories come flooding back in the form of flashbacks or nightmares. Episodes can be triggered by seemingly innocuous and mundane things, such as an unexpected noise or a particular object. The person may go to great lengths to avoid these triggers in daily life, but eventually, something will happen and then the trauma comes rushing back.
It is easy to imagine a chronic sufferer of PTSD must live under intense amounts of stress, always fearing the moment when he or she will re-experience the trauma and have a recurrence of symptoms. Given that constant, high stress level, it is reasonable to understand how some people turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Desperate for relief, unhealthy choices are made.
Why is Recovery So Difficult For Some People?
Unfortunately, many people seek treatment only for substance abuse. When a person’s life is severely negatively affected by addiction, that addiction becomes the scapegoat It is easy to focus on that as the problem that needs to be fixed in order to get life back on track. It is easy to point to alcoholism, for example, as the reason for failing relationships or a lost job. It is much more difficult to look deeper into the underlying trauma and admit that addiction is another symptom of a whole separate problem.
Sometimes, the reverse is also true. A therapist sees a patient coming in with addiction related to past trauma, and the therapist’s instinct is to help the patient work through the trauma with the assumption that the addiction will disappear when that coping mechanism is no longer necessary. Sadly, that is just not the case.
By the time substance abuse has solidified into true addiction, the brain’s reward and motivation pathways have already been rewired. Altered chemical release and uptake systems have a cascading domino effect on everything from mood to sleep to behavior. The addict is no longer in control of his or her ability to limit or quit the drug. The brain’s disrupted circuity makes it harder to control cravings, to maintain healthy behaviors outside of drug usage, and even to recognize that there is a problem at all. Except in rare cases, a severely addicted person is not a person who has the capacity to rewire the brain with healthy behaviors through sheer force of will. At this point, the addiction is not something that will clear up with the treatment of PTSD.
What Are the Best Treatment Options for PTSD and Addiction?
Both conditions must be treated simultaneously. A patient will have a much easier time recovering from addiction if the PTSD that caused the addiction in the first place is also being treated. Likewise, a person seeking treatment for PTSD will have a much greater chance of success if he or she is not struggling with a private, untreated addiction that leaves the brain muddled and working at partial capacity.
Every person has an individual reason why he or she experiences trauma and copes with stress in a certain way. While it is tempting to explain away the link between PTSD and addiction as a case of self-medication in response to unpleasant thoughts or feelings, that overly simplistic answer leaves too many questions unanswered for some patients. The best treatment plan for someone suffering from both PTSD and addiction takes into account the very personal and unique reasons the patient has ended up going down that path.
Therapy vs Medication
Talk therapy and medications are usually the first lines of defense against PTSD. Within that umbrella, patients have a few options. Antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs help stabilize moods and reduce fear and stress responses. While sedatives are often prescribed to PTSD patients to help with troubled sleep, they may not be a good idea for those struggling with addiction. Therapy can include anything from traditional talk sessions to guided hypnosis. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), such as exposure therapy to desensitize patients to possible triggers, helps many people.
With any severe substance addiction, the most helpful treatment is to enter rehab. Ocean Hills Recovery offers therapy as part of their treatment programs, but they are not all equipped to deal with PTSD specifically.
If you or a loved one is struggling with both PTSD and addiction, choose a treatment center that will provide optional medication, talk therapy with a licensed therapist who has experience with PTSD, detox facilities, and a supportive rehabilitation environment. Do not underestimate the power of a customized treatment plan when you are dealing with such complicated and interrelated disorders.
What Are Some Resources for Anyone Struggling with PTSD With Addiction?
Reaching out and taking a leap of faith is no easy feat. Every failure and bad experience makes it that much harder to continue to seek help. It is absolutely critical to have a network of reliable resources available to help with recovery.
Ocean Hills Recovery is an ideal treatment facility and provides everything in one package. Custom treatment plans, PTSD-specialized therapists, a team of doctors to prescribe medications, drug, and alcohol detox protocols, and a healthy, rehabilitative environment will all smooth the way toward recovery. But if you are struggling with PTSD and addiction and have no current treatment facility available to you, start by contacting the following resources for help and information.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine provides a patient resources page with physician and clinic locators.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists several methods for finding help with mental illness.
If critical, immediate help is needed, dial 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 any time, day or night.
About the author:
Greg opened his home and heart to alcoholics and addicts in 2003. He is a Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor (CATCI). Starting in 2009 Greg has fostered the growth of Ocean Hills Recovery into one of the most respected and effective treatment centers in the area and has been working with people with addictions since March of 2001. Greg believes in a holistic approach to recovery. His focus is on drug alcohol addiction treatment with a combination of 12 Step work, therapy and counseling, and the rejuvenation of the body through healthful eating and exercise. He has designed his program to foster a family-like atmosphere and believes that people in recovery are just beginning their lives. He encourages the people he works with to learn to enjoy life in sobriety. Greg is married to Nicole; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.