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Ending the Confusion of PTSD and Addiction

Trauma and addiction often go hand-in-hand – especially when that trauma is life-threatening or catastrophic. The result? Such experiences can often lead to the development of a severe psychiatric disorder, known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Breaking Down PTSD

PTSD, in other words, is a response to a life-threatening experience in which the patient re-experiences the trauma, avoids reminders of the event, and experiences emotional numbing or hyper-arousal.

That’s a handful and can often be a bit confusing. So let’s break down the above into separate parts.

  • Catastrophic events: These include things like being in war; surviving a natural disaster or a terrorist attack; suffering a rape or sexual assault. In each instance, the act was potentially fatal and, in addition, the survivor’s initial reaction was one of intense fear and horror.
  • Re-experiencing events: This is a persistent phenomenon that can include dreams, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts about the event.
  • Avoidance: After a life-threatening trauma, a person qualifying for a diagnosis of PTSD will avoid people, places, things that remind them of the event.
  • Numbing: This includes a limited range of expressed affect; feeling detached or estranged from others.
  • Hyper-arousal: In this state, an individual will have trouble sleeping; experience bursts of anger; suffer from an exaggerated startle response; or have difficulty concentrating.

Some other interesting features of PTSD are that it lasts for at least one month – and likewise, it will typically subside within 3 months (especially with the right treatment).

Busting PTSD Myths

There are many common myths and misconceptions about PTSD. Let’s look at some of the most common:

Myth #1:  Anyone exposed to trauma has a diagnosis of PTSD

This is simply not true. First of all, the trauma has to be significant (i.e. life-threatening) and even then, many individuals will never develop the myriad of symptoms outlined above. The reason for that is complex. For example, two individuals might experience the same life-threatening experience, while one develops PTSD and the other does not. The answer has to do with a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors. Biologically, the amygdala (an almond-shaped structure located in the brain’s temporal lobe) is responsible for fight and flight. This structure seems to be overactive in people who are diagnosed with PTSD.

Myth #2:  PTSD lasts forever.

Usually symptoms will resolve within three months. In the rare circumstances that it persists, the diagnosis changes to complex PTSD.

Myth #3:  Recovery is impossible.

Three simple words to counter this myth: There’s always hope!


Trauma and Substance Abuse

Before getting into the substantive recommendations for recovery from PTSD, let’s talk about the co-morbidities.

Trauma and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand. It’s tempting to dissociate from the trauma and lingering feelings of pain and confusion – not to mention the visceral sensation of fatigue, nausea, sweating, and racing heartbeat – that persists afterwards.

Substances help to numb these intolerable and distressing feelings and experiences. But the obvious problem is that substances also perpetuate a vicious and harmful cycle.

Treating PTSD

There are many common mistakes that people make when attempting to recover from PTSD and addiction. Going it alone, for instance, is a huge mistake. There is immense value in finding the right therapist, medication and support group.

There are many common mistakes that people make when attempting to recover from PTSD and addiction. Going it alone, for instance, is a huge mistake.-Helen FarrellAmong the effective treatment options for PTSD are medication, therapy, relaxation, support groups and family therapy. Medications such as antidepressants are very helpful. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a research-based modality of therapy, shifts the focus from feelings (which can’t be controlled) to thoughts and behaviors (things that can be controlled).

There are many things that family members and friends can do to help someone suffering from PTSD. Encouraging an open dialogue, being supportive, and approaching the topic without judgment, are all great first steps. In addition, looking up therapists in the area, attending support groups with loved ones, and even reading books about the subject are all very useful techniques to combat the stigma surrounding PTSD and addiction.

And as a last thought: Do encourage loved ones to seek professional help. There is no reason to suffer because there is recovery and hope!

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