PTSD We’ve been there.
After a traumatic event — like combat, an assault, or a disaster — it’s normal to feel scared, keyed up, or sad at first. But if it’s been months or years since the trauma and you’re not feeling better, you may have PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder).
PTSD and Addiction
Initially defined as “shell shock” for veterans coming home to their places of origin, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD has evolved so that it’s description now includes a range of trauma-inducing stressors. The condition itself is described as a mental disorder that’s triggered when a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, but it can also happen from prolonged exposure to something the person considers traumatic.
Co-Occurring PTSD and Addiction
One of the symptoms of PTSD is the avoidance of thoughts and feelings associated with the traumatic experience. To prevent becoming too stressed or anxious, a person with PTSD may drink more often or use drugs to self-medicate, which can lead to addiction.
Here are some statistics on comorbid addiction and PTSD:
As much as 33% of army veterans who seek treatment for addiction have PTSD.
50% of individuals who are treated for addiction also have PTSD.
Individuals with PTSD are two times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those who don’t have the condition.
There’s also another effect of PTSD that motivates affected individuals to drink and do drugs, and that’s endorphin withdrawal.
Endorphins are neurotransmitters our body produces to reduce pain and create a feeling of well-being. During a traumatic event, our brain produces more of these neurotransmitters as a means to cope. As soon as the incident is over, however, the body can have trouble adjusting to the change.
The period of endorphin withdrawal can last hours to days and can contribute to other symptoms of PTSD. To avoid the emotional distress that comes from the gradual decrease of endorphins in the body, the person will seek the effects of alcohol, opioids, and other addictive substances.
Other symptoms of endorphin withdrawal to look for:
In many cases, PTSD precedes substance use disorder. In fact, their co-occurrence is so widespread that almost half of the individuals who suffer from PTSD also meet the criteria for substance addiction.
Veterans with PTSD and Addiction
People often associate PTSD with men and women who serve in the armed forces. This is because, compared to the general population, veterans are more likely to have been exposed to combat situations, service-related injuries, and multiple deployments that can cause plenty of anxiety and stress. This cocktail of factors can put military personnel at a greater risk of developing PTSD, which can co-occur with drug addiction and alcohol dependency.
Another possible cause is that active servicemen and servicewomen turn to marijuana and hash to relieve the daily stress while working in the armed forces. The negative habit slowly turns into a dependency, which can spiral down into an addiction.
Moreover, when men and women who serve in the military return home, they are faced with a new challenge: adjusting to civilian life. This exposure to new stressors can push veterans to self-medicate by drinking and using drugs.
But it isn’t just military veterans who suffer from dual-diagnosis. Firefighters, police officers, paramedics and others in uniformed professions that have a higher risk of being exposed to life-and-death situations are also prone to developing PTSD and addiction.
PTSD: What to Look For
There are several symptoms that medical professionals look for to diagnose PTSD, and they can be categorized into four different groups: intrusion symptoms, avoidance symptoms, cognition and mood symptoms, and arousal symptoms. Here are some examples of each one of these:
Frequently having memories of the event
Recurrent dreams about the traumatic event
Intense or prolonged distress after encountering a trigger that reminds them of the event
Flashbacks where the affected person feels they’re reliving the event
Physical reactions, such as rapid heartbeat and sweating, from being reminded of the event
Avoidance of triggers, which can include the avoidance of:
Avoiding memories, feelings, and thoughts related to the event
Cognition and Mood Symptoms
Inability to remember key events of the trauma
Negative yet persistent beliefs about oneself, other people, and the world
Blaming themselves or others for the trauma as a result of flawed beliefs
Constantly being in an emotional state
Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
Feeling detached from other people
Inability or difficulty experiencing positive emotions
Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms
Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
Being easily startled
Outbursts of anger
Engaging in high-risk or self-destructive behavior