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Among other symptoms, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often haunted by disturbing flashbacks to past incidents of violence, physical trauma or emotional abuse. At their most severe the symptoms of PTSD can be highly stressful and disabling, leaving sufferers feeling trapped without a route of escape.
Given the persistent and overwhelming nature of PTSD, it is hardly surprising that a significant number of its victims turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to relieve their pain. But drugs and alcohol only mask the symptoms of PTSD temporarily, before they return at full intensity. Rather than looking for help elsewhere, some PTSD suffers return to drugs and alcohol again and again, until chemical dependency develops and they no longer have the ability to resist the cravings.
Addiction rates are sky high among those who suffer from this mental health disorder. Between one-third and one-half of men and women diagnosed with PTSD will develop a drug or alcohol addiction at some point in their lives, which can magnify their suffering significantly.
Ideally, people with PTSD would receive treatment early enough to avoid encounters with drugs and alcohol. But regardless of the circumstances it is never too late to find wellness.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder locks you into unhealthy and unpleasant emotional states from which you cannot fully recover. The traumatic events responsible for PTSD are your constant companion, invading your dreams and disrupting your daily life in frightening and unexpected ways. You’ll adopt avoidance behaviors to protect yourself from the anguish and paralyzing anxiety, but this will only reinforce the condition and allow it to control you even more.
Symptoms will range from moderate-to-severe, but regardless of their intensity they are persistent and will leave you feeling as if you’ve lost control of your emotional well-being.
Symptoms of PTSD
It is normal for those who undergo painful or tragic events to experience some emotional scarring. But when PTSD develops your symptoms of distress will be frequent and unmanageable and will become more powerful over time. They will make it difficult to function in a variety of circumstances.
The most commonly experienced symptoms of PTSD include:
- Flashbacks (mental replays of the trauma so vivid they seem like real-life events).
- Recurrent nightmares.
- Panic attacks.
- Constant anticipatory anxiety (always feeling “on edge”).
- Paralyzing fear in non-threatening situations.
- Anger management troubles, uncontrollable rages.
- Overreaction to relatively minor threats or conflicts.
- Sensitivity to sights, sounds and odors that never provoked discomfort in the past.
- A desire for quiet and isolation.
- Paranoia and a deep mistrust of strangers (sometimes even of friends).
- Feelings of depression, hopelessness or despair.
These symptoms are often triggered by experiences that might seem harmless to others. But in the minds of PTSD victims they are somehow associated with past trauma, and as a result they evoke a powerful emotional response. In these moments reality is altered in the mind of the PTSD sufferer, making the world a scary and threatening place.
Causes of PTSD
Any kind of experience with trauma, either direct (it happened to you) or indirect (it happened to someone you know) could lead to PTSD. Sometimes the disorder develops quickly, while other times it may take months or even years before symptoms become noticeable.
Your chances of developing PTSD could be significantly elevated if you if you’ve had previous exposure to or been the victim of any of the following:
- Physical, psychological or sexual abuse in childhood.
- Rape or serious sexual harassment.
- Armed robbery or assault.
- Being threatened with a gun or other weapon.
- Natural disaster.
- Warfare, as a combatant or innocent bystander.
- The sudden death of a spouse, child or loved one.
- A car accident.
- Cancer, heart attack or other life-threatening condition.
- Domestic abuse.
In addition to your own suffering, repeated exposure to the suffering or trauma of others can in fact lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Terrible, frightening acts don’t have to happen to you, or even someone you love, to make a huge impact in your life.
Risk Factors for PTSD
Some people who experience significant trauma will develop full-fledged PTSD while others will not. Here are a few factors that could put you at greater risk for PTSD, should they be a part of your life history:
- The trauma you experienced was highly intense, caused extensive physical or emotional damage or was repeated over a significant period of time.
- You were a victim of child abuse, especially of a sexual nature.
- You’ve suffered from other types of mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety.
- Your family has a history of PTSD.
- You’ve served in the military (and seen combat action) or worked as a police officer, firefighter, paramedic or in another type of job that puts you face-to-face with serious human or animal suffering.
Why Do PTSD Victims Turn to Drugs and Alcohol?
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a relentless condition, leaving those who suffer from its symptoms desperate to find salvation. Drugs and alcohol cannot offer this—in fact they bring just the opposite—but when victims of PTSD are scared, lonely and overwhelmed by anxiety they will do just about anything to make the stress and anguish go away, at least for a little while.
Most PTSD sufferers do not get the therapy they need to manage their conditions, making them vulnerable to the lure of drugs and alcohol. Self-medicating for emotional health problems is always a terrible idea, and once someone with PTSD begins using drugs or alcohol to dull their pain addiction can develop at warp speed.
While substance abuse often follows PTSD and the symptoms it provokes, in some instances the cause-and-effect relationship is reversed. People with drug or alcohol disorders are more likely to be victims of violence and abuse, be involved in serious accidents or experience life-threatening physical health troubles. All of this can lead to PTSD, complicating an already-existing substance abuse problem.
Statistics on PTSD and Substance Abuse
Approximately eight percent of the U.S. population will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. About five percent, or 13 million American adults, will have PTSD at any given time.
(The PTSD Alliance)
As many as 70 percent of all Americans will be exposed to significant trauma and one-in-five will go on to develop PTSD.
(The PTSD Alliance)
Men and women diagnosed with PTSD are two-to-four-times more likely to meet the criteria for a substance abuse disorder.
(National Comorbidity Survey)
Among those who have been diagnosed with PTSD, 46 percent register positive for a substance abuse disorder and more than 22 percent meet the criteria for substance dependence, a predictor of future addiction.
(2010 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions)
Treatment for a PTSD/Substance Abuse Dual Diagnosis
In dual diagnosis treatment each disorder is given full priority. Treatment services for addiction and PTSD will be integrated and smoothly coordinated to make sure each day spent in a residential treatment center is productive, bringing the patient one step closer to a dual recovery.
After the evaluation and diagnosis stage has been completed, for many patients detox for drug or alcohol dependency will have to be administered first. The detox program, which will take place in a hospital-like setting, may last for a few days or possibly a few weeks, depending on the depth of the drug/alcohol addiction and the patient’s progress through withdrawal.
Once detox has been completed treatment for the co-occurring disorders can begin. Working with psychological counselors, physicians, medical specialists and addiction treatment experts, the patient will participate in an extensive menu of recovery-related activities.
This will include some combination of one-to-one, group and family therapy, plus life-skills classes, mind-body healing courses, possibly medication (in some cases but not in all) and a host of customized activities designed to meet the unique needs of the individual.
With PTSD one-to-one counseling sessions will be especially critical, as those suffering from this condition need a safe, comfortable and peaceful environment to work through their stress issues constructively and proactively.
When the patient’s stint in rehab is finished, he or she should emerge feeling refreshed and invigorated, clean and sober and ready for a life without drugs and alcohol—and free from the iron grip of the worst symptoms of PTSD. Aftercare services will of course be provided to help the patient strengthen their commitment to permanent healing.
Our Treatment Program for PTSD and Substance Abuse
Men and women with co-occurring PTSD and chemical dependency will have to work hard to regain their sobriety and a peaceful state of mind. But with the right guidance and support this is a mountain that can be conquered.
– Nick Russie, Co-Founder
At FootPrints BHC you’ll be working with experienced and highly qualified psychiatrists, therapists, physicians, nurses, addiction counselors and mind-body healing experts. When you come to a FootPrints Behavioral Health Center for treatment services you’ll be in compassionate hands, from day one until the time comes for you to return home.
During your individual, group and family counseling sessions we will help you explore your personal history and struggles with both PTSD and substance abuse. Moment-by-moment and day-by-day, you’ll learn to face your past honestly and without fear while taking full responsibility for creating a better future.
You’ll also focus on developing practical strategies for coping with the disabling symptoms of PTSD, re-training your mind to manage even the most painful memories without undue anxiety or distress. To assist you in this process, we’ll introduce you to a variety of holistic methods for healing that will help you restore your emotional equilibrium. As you deepen your knowledge of these mind-body techniques, you’ll equip yourself with tools for self-empowerment and self-improvement that you can carry with you for the rest of your life.
At FootPrints BHC we can help you build an achievement-filled future, free from chemical dependency and no longer limited by PTSD or any other mental health issues.
How to Help a Family Member with PTSD and a Substance Abuse Disorder
During and after treatment, victims of PTSD need the loving support of friends and family members, as they learn how to cope with symptoms that can cause them great emotional pain. When substance abuse enters the picture, it is even more vital that loved ones take an active role in the healing process.
To make a positive impact, you should do your best to remain hopeful, optimistic and encouraging. However, you should never pressure your loved one to talk or share when they are not ready to do so. You must respect their need for privacy even as you do everything in your power to help them build a bridge to a brighter tomorrow.
If they lash out at you or reject your overtures don’t take it personally. Just withdraw for a while and be ready to step back in again when they are ready to re-connect.
When they have a loving, caring support network to back them up, men and women suffering from addiction or mental illness have a much greater chance of making a permanent recovery. If you can weather the storm in your loved one’s hour of need it will make a difference, of this you can be certain.