Substance abuse has emerged to become one of the most common disorders globally. Addiction is a brain disease that, if not taken seriously, can further worsen and degrade the usual function of a healthy brain. Mental illness poses a similar risk to an individual and is detrimental to their wellbeing. However, various studies and research claims that an underlying mental health condition increases the chance of developing a substance abuse disorder. This health condition is known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis disorder. Co-occurring disorders are dangerous as they are hard to diagnose and treat. However, there are certain mental health conditions which make an individual more prone to substance abuse. Mental illnesses like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) puts an individual at more risk of abusing a substance and developing a dependence on one.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of the most emotionally draining conditions that sources anxiety attacks, nightmarish flashbacks, and intrusive memories that hinder daily life. These effects on daily life push the individual to use drugs and/or alcohol to ease their pain and feel a little better.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a health condition in people who have been through an extremely traumatic or stressful event such as witnessing a loved one’s death, enduring fatal injuries, life-threatening situation, or any situation that has introduced or engaged them to a traumatic event. PTSD is a condition where people experience flashbacks of bad events during which they feel fearful, horrified, and helpless.

Although any psychological or physical trauma that leaves an individual feeling powerless may lead to PTSD, some common causes of this mental illness can be related to military combat, natural disasters, violent or sexual assault, childhood abuse, domestic violence, etc.

The nightmares experienced by individual suffering from PTSD revolves around situations that are never fully resolved in their psyche. For example, a soldier who has seen his fellow soldier die right in front of him, or a soldier who has seen any innocent person die because of the battle can get flashbacks related to the incident with the feeling of regret and anger. Similarly, an adult who has been sexually assaulted as a child can get nightmares about the time when they were sexually tortured, with a mixed feeling of helplessness and revenge.

Although any traumatic event can increase the probability of suffering from a PTSD disorder, women are more likely to suffer PTSD due to any sexual abuse-related bad experience in the past. Whereas in men, the common reason for PTSD is combat. In Vietnam veterans, around 60 to 80 percent of them seeking treatment for PTSD also need treatment for substance abuse disorder.

Symptoms of PTSD

The most common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, ignoring places, or people related to the event, sleeplessness, severe anxiety, aggressive traits, and anger at its peak. Although these symptoms can strike at any point, the most common trigger that causes these symptoms to surface is when he or she is reminded of the event.

Often, people who are diagnosed with PTSD also suffer from a series of other disorders such as depression, chronic pain, attention deficit disorder, and other chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes, of liver-related problems.

The various categories of PTSD symptoms are:

Avoidance symptoms

  • Trying to avoid people or places associated with the traumatic event.
  • Avoiding or refusing to talk to people or about the experience that had happened in the past and is the root cause of PTSD.

Intrusive memories

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event.
  • Nightmarish terror related to past experience.
  • Severe physical reactions when reminded about the event.

Emotional reactions

  • Sleeplessness
  • A feeling of guilt and shame
  • Irritability and an always-frustrating behavior
  • Self-destruction habits (e.g. drinking, smoking, reckless driving, etc.)

Mood or changes in thinking

  • Difficulty in managing close relationships
  • Negativity about self and/or others
  • Incapable to cultivate positivity

PTSD and Substance Abuse Disorder

People who experience the aforementioned symptoms at least for a month are said to be suffering from PTSD. However, there are other types of symptoms known as avoidance symptoms that are related to the use of alcohol or drugs to avoid memories or deal with fearful thoughts. The moment drugs and/or alcohol are used by a PTSD patient to self-medicate, the disorder proceeds to become even worse.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can elevate the depression and anxiety. This can disturb normal sleep patterns and make the already fearful individual more prone to experiencing anxiety attacks. Furthermore, an individual under the influence of alcohol can engage in risk-taking behavior or may even become more aggressive than ever. They can also engage in an altercation with someone or drive under the influence of alcohol, risking their own as well as other people’s lives.

This is the reason why PTSD, when paired with a substance abuse disorder, often leads to numerous problems. The most stressful ones are legal issues, health problems, chronic unemployment, and broken homes. It is highly advisable to immediately seek medical attention in co-occurring disorders like these. Proper treatment is the only way a difference can be made.

Treatment of PTSD and Substance Abuse Disorder

Prolonged use of alcohol and other harmful substances affects the brain’s chemistry and rewires its structure. This impacts the healthy functioning of the brain and the individual develops a dependence on the substance to feel normal. With long-term use and enough time of usage, the patient of PTSD can become addicted. While both substance abuse disorder and PTSD are detrimental to one’s health, it’s crucial to treat both simultaneously to rectify the damage.

Alongside medical treatment for the condition, the patient should also consider physical exercises for self-healing. Various treatment centers and rehabilitation facilities include physical activities as a way to help patients cope with PTSD and related pain symptoms. Exercise releases endorphins which can soothe depression and severe anxiety. Doctors may even prescribe antidepressants to help curb depression.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is also one treatment method that can alleviate painful memories and reduce the symptoms of PTSD. Many treatment centers use CBT to treat patients.

Several clinics or rehabs specializing in treating co-occurring disorders use CBT along with other treatment methods to help patients suffering from PTSD and substance abuse disorder. It is always advisable for the sufferer to reach out to seek medical attention as soon as possible. If you or your loved one needs help regarding this, seek immediate help.

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