The Connection Between Trauma and Abuse
PTSD is More Common Than You Think
The first awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) dates back to historical texts, like The Odyssey. But it was only during World War I that doctors began noticing that soldiers were returning home and suffering from nightmares, panic attacks, and other psychological disturbances. What we know about PTSD today has come a long way from when it was originally known as “Shell Shock” in the early 1900’s. Since then, health professionals around the world have been studying PTSD and the impact that trauma has on the human brain.
What is PTSD?
In short, post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that typically affects people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as war combat, a personal assault, a serious accident, a terrorist attack, or any other type of violent situation. As history shows, this disorder was once thought to only affect war veterans. However, we know today that every person, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and culture, can develop the disorder.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 3.5 percent of U.S. adults suffer from the disorder, and roughly one in 11 people will get diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lifetime. Doctors have also determined that women are twice as likely to get diagnosed with PTSD compared with men.
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Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD falls under the category of anxiety disorders, but the condition has several distinguishing symptoms. People suffering from PTSD tend to exhibit symptoms, like:
- Involuntary memories
- Realistic flashbacks of traumatic experiences
- Easily Startled
- Behaving Recklessly
- Trouble Sleeping
- Avoid reminders of the event, including people, places, activities, and situations that bring on negative memories
The diagnosing process for PTSD requires a person to exhibit symptoms for over one month, although sometimes symptoms can last for years. The symptoms must also be causing the person significant stress that interferes with their daily life. In most cases, symptoms of PTSD occur within about three months of the initial trauma, but occasionally show up later.
How are Substance Abuse and PTSD Related?
Researchers have discovered a strong correlation between all mental health disorders and substance abuse. About half of all individuals with a severe mental illness also suffer from a substance abuse disorder. And when it comes to PTSD and related trauma, the statistics are even higher.
It’s very common for individuals with PTSD to suffer from similar mental health conditions, like depression and substance abuse issues. According to research published in Clinical Psychology, between 50-66 percent of people who suffer from PTSD also have a simultaneous drug or alcohol addiction problem. And surprisingly, people who suffer from PTSD are up to four times more likely to battle addiction, compared to people who don’t have PTSD.
Over the years, doctors have conducted extensive research on the link between veterans with PTSD and substance abuse disorders. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than two in 10 veterans with the disorder also suffer from an addiction, and one in three veterans getting treatment for addiction also have the disorder. Data also shows that veterans with this disorder are twice as likely to smoke nicotine, compared with veterans without PTSD.
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Why are People With PTSD at a Higher Risk for Substance Abuse?
One reason why substance abuse is so common in individuals with PTSD has to do with the ways that PTSD affects brain chemistry. When someone experiences a traumatic event, the brain pumps out endorphins—a type of neurotransmitter—to reduce pain and stress during that situation. But when the traumatic event is over, the brain goes through an endorphin withdrawal, which comes with symptoms like anxiety and emotional distress.
It’s that endorphin withdrawal that can lead to alcohol or drug addiction in people with PTSD. Some individuals suffering from PTSD use drugs and alcohol to replace the feelings of endorphins that the brain stops producing in the wake of a traumatic event.
Another major cause of substance abuse in people with mental health disorders is self-medication. People who have PTSD often turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their distressing memories and anxiety. But while using certain substances can improve symptoms in the moment, the body eventually needs more of the substance to reap the benefits, and it can quickly turn into a serious dependency.
Common Treatments for PTSD
Like most mental health conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder is a treatable disorder, although it takes hard work and dedication to make a full recovery. There are several common approaches to PTSD treatment, including talk therapy, medication, and experimental treatments.
It’s always recommended to seek help from a licensed mental health professional who can evaluate the person’s specific situation and recommend a comprehensive treatment plan. It’s common for people with PTSD to visit a psychiatrist or psychologist at least once per week for talk therapy. That gives them a chance to unpack and address their traumatic experience and the associated feelings in a safe space. A therapist can also help someone with PTSD develop healthier ways of coping with their memories.
Depending on the severity of the person’s PTSD, a psychiatrist might also prescribe medication to help them reduce anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares. Certain medications can also turn off the brain’s fight or flight response, which can make someone feel jumpy or irritable. The only FDA-approved drugs for PTSD are Paxil and Zoloft, which are SSRIs that target serotonin in the brain.
While talk therapy and medication are among the most commonly prescribed treatment plans for people with the disoder, there are also new experimental treatments that doctors are exploring. Some mental health professionals are treating patients with small doses of MDMA, also known as the party drug “Molly”, along with talk therapy. Cannabis is also being used to help people with PTSD reduce chronic stress. Some doctors are using virtual reality to help veterans get more comfortable with battle memories and improve their emotions.
The Rise of EMDR as a New Treatment for PTSD
Doctors are also recommending a newer treatment, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), to people with PTSD. EMDR uses a person’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to lessen the prevalence of emotional memories tied to traumatic events.
In an EMDR session, a therapist moves their fingers back and forth in front of the patient’s face and asks them to follow the motions with their eyes. Simultaneously, the therapist will ask the patient to think about their traumatic experience. Gradually, the therapist prompts the patient to think about more pleasant thoughts. The idea behind EMDR is that the patient is able to think about something happy while they are remembering their trauma, which is thought to lessen the effect of negative emotions.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, EMDR is an effective treatment for people with both acute and chronic PTSD. The organization also noted that EMDR is especially beneficial for people who struggle to talk about their traumatic events because EMDR does not require any talk therapy. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense both support EMDR as a treatment for military and non-military patients.
PTSD and Substance Abuse Treatment at Launch Centers
At Launch Centers, we specialize in helping young adults overcome PTSD, related mental health conditions, and addiction, so they can accel in school, work, and their everyday lives. Each client is given a customized treatment program and a therapist who aids them in recovery and sobriety, while the client pursues their personal goals and passions.
We use a combination of talk therapy, medication, group counseling, family counseling, education and vocational programs to help young adults manage their mental health condition and gain a sense of control and meaning in their lives. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about the programs we offer at Launch Centers.