PTSD and Addiction

Over the past twenty years, numerous research studies have proven a significant link between PTSD and ensuing addiction. In one study, where both addicted patients and a non-addicted control group were looked at, the substance abuse patients had a 97% positive PTSD result, while the control group had a 36% positive result. 

The treatment of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, has become a crucial part of full spectrum addiction treatment for the recovery community. 

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder defined by the American Psychiatric Association as occurring in people who have, in part, “experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury. People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. A diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an upsetting traumatic event. However, the exposure could be indirect rather than first hand.”

Those struggling with the emotional and mental impacts of PTSD- anxiety, depression, panic attacks, disassociation, inability to focus- sometimes self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, starting the cycle of addiction.

Treatment for PTSD

The good news is that the understanding of diagnosing and treating PTSD has grown substantially over the last decade alone. The newly sober will find that most treatment centers have psychiatrists and psychologists on hand to guide them through PTSD recognition and management, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be very effective in minimizing the emotional and mental distress of the disorder, while increasing the person’s resilience to the stress of day to day life.

CBT is a therapeutic approach with a toolkit of ways to help the patient. Not every person with PTSD will respond to one approach of CBT so it is helpful to keep in mind that there are options if a certain tactic is tried and doesn’t offer relief. 

Many PTSD sufferers also find relief with EMDR, a completely different approach than Cognitive Behavior Therapy. EMDR therapy techniques to treat your targeted memories of trauma. Next to the therapist, you will be asked to focus on a negative thought, memory, or image, and do specific eye movements. Some therapists also include tapping of the fingers. 

A 2012 study found that EMDR was very effective for a populous with psychotic disorder and/or PTSD. Out of 27 patients, only five were still presenting with a diagnosis of PTSD after EMDR treatment.

Although EMDR was controversial when it first made its way into mainstream society, numerous small research studies have shown that it is an effective treatment for PTSD, specifically. There are not harmful side effects associated with this therapy, such as an increase is anger, paranoia or negative behaviors, so a person can attempt the protocol without worry about worsening their state.

Similarities in the Brain

PTSD negatively changes the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion. PTSD interferes with the function of the brain that recognizes past experiences as rooted firmly in the past; a person with PTSD can feel as if the past event is actually occurring, with the same emotional weight and impact. The brain responds as if it is under immediate threat, and the cycle of trauma repeats. Both CBT and EMDR attempt to interrupt this faulty process and root the brain in the present moment, releasing the past.

Addiction works in a similar way, with triggers causing the brain to intensify a craving for drug or alcohol. The triggers of PTSD and the triggers of addiction can inflame each other, worsening symptoms of both disorders.

This is why treating PTSD in sobriety is key to staying clean. With proper treatment, support, and hard work, a person can be relieved of the worst of both the PTSD and addiction reactions, making positive changes easier to obtain, which then increases the person’s self-worth and belief that they can, after all, stay clean.

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