Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be one of the most intrusive and emotionally devastating mental disorders, causing debilitating anxiety, terrifying flashbacks and nightmares. Living with PTSD is often difficult because it affects one’s daily life and interactions with others. Many people who suffer from PTSD turn to alcohol to numb or shut down their feelings, and some become addicted, creating a complicated dual-diagnosis. When there is a dual-diagnosis of PTSD and alcoholism, it’s important that treatment for both is sought for recovery to be possible. The two diagnoses frequently seem to go hand-in-hand, and so must the healing.
What is PTSD?
When someone witnesses or experiences some sort of traumatic event, they are at risk of developing PTSD. It is a psychiatric disorder that results from exposure to life-threatening events like, but not limited to:
- Military combat
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Natural disasters
- Serious accidents
- Childhood neglect
- Terrorist attack
Most people who experience trauma return to normal after some time passes, but some will develop PTSD. For those who do develop the disorder, they often continue to experience the same type of stress and anxiety that occurred during the traumatic event. PTSD sufferers are prone to reliving the trauma through nightmares and flashbacks, extreme anxiety, and in some cases, dissociation. Without treatment, these symptoms can worsen over time, and can certainly disrupt everyday lives.
PTSD symptoms generally fall into these three categories:
Reliving The Traumatic Event
Negative thoughts and feelings about the trauma may come to mind at any time, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly. People with PTSD may have nightmares or flashbacks of the event and may become upset or anxious when something reminds them of their trauma.
Constantly On Guard
People with PTSD are often easily startled by sudden or loud noises. They may become anxious or angry about staying safe. They are hypervigilant about what is going on around them, sometimes obsessively. People with PTSD are likely to want to sit with their backs to the wall in restaurants or other places so that they can see the whole room. Some people with PTSD have insomnia or gastrointestinal issues due to the anxiety of constantly being on guard.
Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event
Some PTSD sufferers will try to avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event, whether it is people, places, activities, or even sounds or smells. They may try to stuff their feelings about the trauma and may feel emotionally numb or detached.
PTSD and Alcoholism
There is a strong link between PTSD and alcoholism. It’s no wonder, with such intrusive symptoms, that people who have PTSD want to escape from their own thoughts and feelings. That’s why turning to alcohol may seem beneficial to them. They use alcohol to avoid the symptoms and to try to regain the happier, more relaxed feeling that they had prior to the traumatic event – and it works, for a while. However, prolonged alcohol abuse or addiction can magnify issues for PTSD sufferers. They may become more angry, violent and aggressive, depression may become deeper, and feelings of anxiety and fear may increase when they add alcohol to the mix. Additionally, as a person’s tolerance for alcohol increases, their need for more to reach the desired feeling also kicks in. This can lead to problem drinking or alcohol addiction.
Studies show that just over 50% of PTSD sufferers use alcohol as a coping mechanism. Some use it to avoid feelings and check out, while others use it to sleep and avoid nightmares. This self-medicating can quickly become dangerous. Alcoholism is a progressive disease, it only gets worse. When you combine the propensity people with PTSD have to unexpressed anger and fear with alcoholism, the result can be life-altering. The negative consequences can be as serious as having financial and legal issues, losing relationships, additional health problems, suicidal or homicidal ideations, and even death.
Finding the Right Treatment
The good news for people with PTSD and a drinking problem is that there is help for both, and recovery from both is possible. Because alcoholism or problem drinking changes our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it is important to work on establishing sobriety first. Otherwise, treatment for PTSD will be ineffective. There are various types of treatment for alcoholics including:
Detox from alcohol and other drugs can be quite uncomfortable, or even painful. Medically supervised detox is designed to help the patient get through withdrawal as comfortably as possible. Withdrawal from alcohol can be extremely dangerous, even fatal, so detox is strongly recommended. Quitting “cold turkey” without medical supervision is very risky.
Inpatient treatment is a residential program where the patient stays for an extended amount of time (usually 30-90 days). Therapy, support groups, education and other recovery related activities are used to create structure for patients.
This offers the same daily structure as residential treatment, but only for part of the day. The treatment is usually 6-8 hours a day.
Outpatient treatment is a step down from day treatment. It provides patients with guidance in relapse prevention and reintegration into day-to-day life. It usually meets a few times a week, for a few hours.
Once physically detoxed from alcohol, the real work can begin. With real thoughts and feelings now, not chemically induced ones, a person can begin therapy, group work, and education for both alcoholism and PTSD. Many treatment facilities are experienced in treating dual-diagnosis patients, so both issues can be addressed. PTSD treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, talk therapy, and medication. Facilities that provide dual-diagnosis treatment will be able to best determine what medications are safe for those with addiction issues to use.
If you or a loved one are suffering from the symptoms of PTSD, and are using alcohol to cope, it may be in your best interest to seek help. Recovery may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, but it is absolutely possible. Finding the right treatment center is the key to your physical and mental health; one that treats people with dual-diagnoses will understand best how to proceed. Please call us today so that we may help you get on the road to recovery.