The American Psychiatric Association defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape, or other violent personal assault.” Other traumatic events can include mental illness, childhood trauma, child abuse, sexual assault, sexual abuse.
Trauma experienced may be:
- Acute (a single occurrence)
- Chronic (repeated and prolonged trauma such as domestic violence or abuse)
- Complex (repetitive, prolonged trauma involving ongoing abuse or abandonment within an interpersonal relationship with an uneven power dynamic)
Why Does PTSD Persist?
Someone diagnosed with PTSD continues to experience intense and disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the experience after it has ended. Someone may experience vivid flashbacks or nightmares related to the event. Also, they may experience a bodily response more closely linked to extreme stress or fear despite presently being out of danger. An individual may also experience feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear, depression, or disconnection from others.
Many times, when a person experiences something traumatic, the experience is locked away in the brain with strong emotional responses tied to the memories. Despite being safe in the current moment, the emotional response to a trigger or memory is so strong that the body responds as if they are still in immediate danger. The PTSD symptoms someone may experience are pervasive and may make it difficult for a person to live fully and participate fully in their activities of daily life. Work, relationships, hobbies, and the daily tasks of life feel overwhelming and impossible to navigate.
Typically, when someone experiences symptoms of PTSD, they also find a way to tolerate those symptoms, to make it through their day or night. Each of us finds ways to cope with unpleasant feelings of emotions. Unfortunately, many people use unsafe coping skills when experiencing emotional discomfort. They may distance themselves from others, use alcohol or substances to numb their pain, engage in cutting behaviors, or use degrading and harsh self-talk.
The Close Connection Between PTSD and Substance Abuse
Typically, when we find a behavior that “fixes” the problem, we will continue to use it until it no longer works. We are creatures of habit. For some people, the behavior that brings the most reprieve from the discomfort is alcohol or substance use. Some research shows that at least half of individuals in inpatient treatment for substance abuse also suffer from PTSD. While substance use may have origins elsewhere for some, for many, a history of trauma is involved in the desire to feel different.
Veterans and PTSD
Research shows that in the veteran population, veterans stand as a high percentage of the individuals with a substance use disorder who also suffer from PTSD. The VA sites that more than two of 10 veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder and almost one of every three veterans seeking treatment for a substance abuse disorder also has PTSD. Substance abuse does not discriminate on the basis of race, socioeconomic status, gender, or religious beliefs.
The problem with substance dependence or alcohol abuse is that it becomes a common coping skill used to deal with anxiety, fear, loneliness, depression, sadness, and for many, is a behavioral reaction to just about any emotion one might experience. Given the high rates of alcohol misuse and substance abuse, and the overwhelming symptoms experienced emotionally and physiologically, it’s understandable that someone diagnosed with PTSD who is experiencing the symptoms or reliving the trauma might use a substance or alcohol to cope.
Treatment Commonly Used for People With PTSD
Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma typically involves some form of processing a trauma while also increasing coping skills to tolerate the strong emotion that comes along with the memory of it. It may involve desensitizing a memory or restructuring thoughts related to the trauma to be adaptive and supportive. This can be accomplished by various types of trauma-focused therapy.
This therapy involves the client coming into some form of contact with the traumatic memory. Exposure to the memory may be accomplished in the following ways:
- Imaginal (remembering the event)
- Interoceptive (remembering the emotion or physiological reactions during the event)
- Vivo (returning back to a place or having direct contact with an object or place related to trauma)
Each exposure is intended to decrease the intense emotional and physiological arousal state associated with the memory and increase the individual’s ability to desensitize their brain and body to triggering stimuli.
Cognitive therapy works by modifying negative assessments and memories of trauma. The intention is to alter the behavior and/or thought patterns that have been problematic in the individual’s activities of daily living. Cognitive therapy uses some exposure to the trauma. The idea is to identify strong emotional responses and restructure thoughts in the moment.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) targets the unprocessed memories that connect negative emotions, sensations, and beliefs. By activating the brain’s information processing system, old memories can be digested with the idea that what is useful can be learned and what is no longer useful can be discarded. A clinician uses bilateral stimulation via eye movements, tapping, or sounds to activate both sides of the brain while processing the trauma.
You Aren’t Alone
Many times, individuals who are experiencing symptoms of PTSD and addiction to substance use feel very alone and isolated from others. The weight of it may feel unbearable, and the thought of working through it all may feel impossible. Know that you are not alone and you are not meant to bear this alone. You are not the first ,and you are not the last. There is hope and help for you.
It’s a brave thing to take the first step toward healing when you are unsure where the path will lead you. The path each person takes is different. In fact, no two journeys are ever the same. Therefore, there’s room for everyone on this road to wellness. When we are ready and able to take that first step, we will learn that there are others walking this journey with us. When we look closer, we will notice that they are on their own journey toward wellness. However, they’re cheering us on—every step of the way.
Get the Help You Need From Apex Recovery San Diego
At Apex Recovery San Diego, our trained clinical staff are able to help you not just achieve sobriety, but also overcome underlying traumatic experiences and issues. Whatever that first step is, take it. People all over the world will tell you that hope and healing is possible if you’re ready to engage and do the work. You are worth any amount of work it will take to achieve wellness.