Does PTSD Lead to Addiction?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can affect just about anyone. Around 70% of Americans have suffered a trauma, and around 20% of them suffer from PTSD at some point.

Those who are exposed to continuous trauma are especially likely to suffer from PTSD. 20% of soldiers deployed in the past six years suffer from PTSD, and there are surely many undiagnosed cases. That’s more than 300,000 cases just within the military.

But you don’t have to have been to war to suffer from PTSD. Even hearing terrible news about a loved one can be enough of a trauma to lead to PTSD. It is a condition that is alarmingly prevalent.

Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the realities of the disorder, and many people still don’t have access to treatment. Often, this leads sufferers to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

To understand why this happens, let’s take a look at the basics of PTSD...

What Causes PTSD?

When a person goes through a trauma, their “fight-or-flight” response is triggered. One’s heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature are all elevated. Focus and attention levels are heightened. Adrenaline starts flowing. All of this puts the person in the optimal state to fight the danger.This response is healthy, as long as the danger is still present. When the danger is over, a person’s functions should return to normal. PTSD develops when the stress response continues to persist three months or more after the trauma.Since there is no longer any danger, this response is generally inappropriate. The heightened senses and focus which remain, can make the individual overly aware of even harmless external stimuli. They may struggle to turn off or sleep. They may also relive the trauma. The person’s thoughts and feelings become distorted and can lead to unhappiness, low self-esteem, inability to feel pleasure, and other negative symptoms.

Why This Leads to Addiction

PTSD and addiction might not immediately seem like intuitive bedfellows. After all, in a traumatic situation, the last response you're likely to have is to turn to alcohol and drugs. However, when the danger has passed, substances can seem like the perfect salve for the stress response.

When the body is stressed, levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) are lowered. GABA is the chemical that suppresses the central nervous system, allowing it to turn off. Drugs that similarly suppress the central nervous system therefore do what the low levels of GABA fail to do. Alcohol, marijuana, sleeping and anxiety pills, and opioids all perform this function.

While these substances technically do the job of suppressing the central nervous system, they are not long-term solutions. However, once someone with PTSD starts using one or more of these substances, they can start to seem like the only solution.

Without substances, the individual struggles to get through the day, but with them a whole host of other problems develop. The fundamental trauma is not dealt with through the use of drugs, and the substances eventually become less and less effective while the person’s basic life skills often decay.

Tranquilizing drugs are not the only substances sufferers of PTSD use.

Considering that vivid flashbacks are a typical symptom of PTSD, distraction becomes incredibly important. But due to the effects of PTSD, distraction is very difficult to find. The stress reaction is, after all, designed to drown out all distraction. And things the sufferer once enjoyed may cease to provide the same satisfaction.

Therefore, drugs that increase the presence of dopamine in the brain, making the person feel happy for a period of time, are particularly seductive, as they provide the distraction other activities often can’t. A person might start to chase highs not in order to enhance their life, but in order to simply bear it.

PTSD and Addiction

Some studies suggest that more than 50% of those who suffer from PTSD become addicted to one or more substance. That’s a  big correlation between the two conditions. People with at PTSD are considered at heightened risk for developing drug and alcohol use disorders.

It is important to keep this in mind if you or a loved one are battling PTSD. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the legitimacy danger of PTSD. In some demographics, a culture of “just get over it” makes people feel that struggling after a trauma is over is a sign of weakness. Some people see it as nothing more than an excuse not to get on with one’s life.

Another factor that makes PTSD difficult for many to understand is that anyone who goes through a trauma will experience after-effects to some extent, but only some of those people develop PTSD. Those who do not develop PTSD, therefore wonder why others who went through the same trauma develop the disorder. Remember that PTSD is fairly random. Simply being a “strong person” is no guarantee that your stress reaction will go back to normal after the trauma. A large number of our veterans have unfortunately ended up living on the streets due to their struggles with alcohol and drugs; even those who have survived war zones are unable to overcome PTSD without help.

For mental health professionals, raising awareness of PTSD is therefore very important. It is not a condition that will simply go away, and lack of treatment can lead not only to addiction, but to homelessness and suicide as well.

If you have gone through a trauma, look out for the symptoms of PTSD. These include sleep problems, anxiety and depression, flashbacks, hyper-awareness, and mood swings.

If a loved one has gone through a trauma, check up on them to see if they are experiencing any of the typical symptoms. PTSD can only be properly diagnosed 3 months or more after the trauma. Any post-traumatic stress before that can be entirely normal. But addressing that stress is still important, and some are quicker than others to search for chemical distraction.

PTSD often leads to addiction. Unfortunately, due to lack of awareness, many are unprepared to find healthy alternatives to deal with the disorder. After a trauma, be sure to stay aware of your state of mind, check in with yourself, and reach out to your social support network These measures will help you begin the process of so that you can begin addressing trauma-related problems in a healthy manner.


10/30/2018 11:00:00 PM
Dr. Nancy Irwin
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Dr. Nancy Irwin is co-author of "Breaking Through, Stories of Hope and Recovery" and a Primary Therapist at Seasons in Malibu World Class Addiction and Mental Health Treatment Center
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