Living Mindfully: Addiction and PTSD

Addiction and PTSDAs we continue our Living Mindfully series, we are highlighting mental illnesses that can have dangerous outcomes when paired with addiction. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 7% of adults experience PTSD at some point in their lifetime. The following discussion highlights the characteristics of PTSD and the consequences of mixing PTSD with substance abuse.

Nature of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness that develops in people who have witnessed or undergone a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. PTSD is marked by haunting memories that make a person feel like they are reliving the shock of that event over and over again. Some people experience PTSD through mood swings and behavioral changes, feeling plagued by anger, bitterness, negativity, hopelessness, and inability to focus. Other people battle nightmares or flashbacks throughout their day, which can bring on panic attacks, chills, shaking, headaches, and heart palpitations. Some people even live in chronic fear as if they are always under attack. Other symptoms include severe anxiety, sleeplessness, and angry outbursts.

While it’s natural for anyone to feel afraid after a major crisis, the sensations and emotions that someone experiences with PTSD are much more debilitating and disruptive to everyday life. Even if someone thinks they have moved on from a traumatizing event, symptoms of PTSD can surface months or even years later.

How PTSD interacts with substance abuse

Since the symptoms of PTSD can be incredibly aggravating and devastating, victims often turn to drugs and alcohol to dull the pain of their memories. Addicts will use substances as a means of control to chemically numb their mind of troubling thoughts.

Two key themes across addicts with PTSD are avoidance and disconnection. When someone is trying to push out bad memories, they begin to avoid all places or people that remind them of those events as a way of controlling their environment. By avoiding people and withdrawing from activities, they gradually disconnect from others and spiral into their own fear and self-destruction, further driving their substance abuse.

Given the distressing characteristics of PTSD and addiction, people who suffer from these two mental illnesses too often get caught up in legal issues, incarceration, poverty, broken homes, and unemployment.

Identifying PTSD in addiction treatment

In our line of work, we find that nearly everyone we treat has gone through some type of trauma. While trauma is common among addicts, it’s critical to address the root of each person’s trauma in the addiction treatment process. The nature of trauma can occur in two forms: something happening to the individual or something that individual witnessed happening to someone else. Both forms of trauma can be extremely damaging and heavy on the individual’s mind.

For example, an individual who has experienced trauma first-hand was perhaps the victim of childhood abuse, sexual assault, violence, or some other horrendous act. They have personally dealt with immense fear or shame, and the memories of that event are very much alive in their mind. They could also battle PTSD from going through some type of natural disaster, accident, or other tragedy where they experienced tremendous loss and anxiety.

The individual who experienced trauma second-hand might be dealing with unresolved feelings of guilt or helplessness for their inability to save someone or stop a dangerous situation from harming a loved one. In these situations, maybe the individual watched a cycle of abuse occur within their family, lost a loved one unexpectedly, or grew up in a destructive household. Perhaps we most often picture people who have seen combat or some other lethal conflict in which friends or comrades did not survive. In the case of addiction, secondary trauma could also mean that an addict saw a friend overdose, making the consequences of substance abuse suddenly very real and tangible. Each of these events can trigger symptoms of PTSD that must be addressed for long-term healing.

Importance of openness

As we have shared in previous posts, the most important thing an addict can do is to be an open, honest reporter of their personal history. In order to heal from the wounds of addiction and PTSD, addicts are encouraged to share and acknowledge pieces of their past that are part of their story and struggle with substance abuse. By identifying those painful events, treatment counselors can better support addicts in addressing root issues and building a stronger foundation for recovery.

Do you know someone struggling with a mental health disorder? Learn how other mental health disorders interact with addiction.