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The Link Between Substance Abuse, PTSD, and Trauma

PTSD and trauma have become hot topics of late. Our cultural awareness of these topics grows. Research continues. As we learn more about PTSD and trauma, we understand how they link to substance abuse. We must not think of this in terms of “this causes that.” Such thinking does little to help those who struggle. Instead, we must see PTSD, trauma, and substance abuse as a wide spectrum of issues. Each individual person will have a unique story.

Continue reading for more information on the following:

  • A better understanding of trauma
  • Defining post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • How trauma and PTSD relate to substance abuse
  • Treatment for PTSD/trauma and co-occurring substance abuse
  • What to do next

A Better Understanding of Trauma

Instinctively, we all know that terrible things happen to good people. You may have had something awful happen to you. If not you, then likely to someone you know. These kinds of incidents can impact how we see the world. Traumatic events shape how we understand ourselves. After a traumatic event, a person might make a vow. “I will never…,” they think. Or “People always do…”

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has spent his career researching trauma. His book The Body Keeps The Score has helped reshape our understanding of how the brain deals with painful events. To paraphrase, van der Kolk’s work indicates that trauma loads the mind beyond its ability. Trauma freezes our psychological (and physical) self in place. Trauma occurs when something happens beyond what a person can process.

Examples Of Traumatic Events

Do not equate stress with trauma. Everyone experiences stress – something that throws our life off balance. But not everyone experiences trauma. Trauma creates a situation from which a person does not immediately recover. It overloads their coping mechanisms. Consider the below list of potentially traumatic events. Do not regard the list as all-inclusive.

Examples of potentially traumatic events:

  • Participating in combat
  • Surviving a terrorist attack or natural disaster
  • Rape/sexual abuse
  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
  • Witnessing (or falling victim to) a violent crime

Defining Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder refers to a specific kind of trauma response. Not everyone who undergoes a traumatic event develops PTSD. But PTSD does affect a significant population of people.

PTSD comes with a variety of symptoms. Find some of them below:

  • Intrusive memories or automatic thoughts
  • Repeated nightmares about the traumatic events
  • Avoiding people or places that remind one of the traumatic event
  • Agitation, anger, explosive temper
  • Startles easily, and beyond what a situation demands

How Trauma and PTSD Relate To Substance Abuse

Suffering begets suffering. Trauma survivors may turn to substances to relieve their anguish. For that reason, they may develop substance use disorder. Furthermore, we must dismiss the notion that substance abuse disorders constitute a moral failure. If we know someone struggling with substance use, they may have suffered trauma we know nothing about. Bear this in mind.

Co-Occurring Disorders

If a person experiences both PTSD and substance use disorder, researchers call these co-occurring disorders. You may also see the terms comorbidity or dual diagnosis. As a reminder, let go of determining “causes.” Trauma and substance use disorder may have a variety of interrelated causes. But determining causes may not always help with treatment. Co-occurring disorders require treatment from different angles.

Is It Common for Trauma Survivors To Abuse Substances?

Most definitely. Emotionally, trauma survivors may either experience overwhelm or numbness. To experience some degree of relief (or stimulation) one might seek to self-medicate. About 36-52% of those with PTSD also seek treatment for alcohol use disorder. This study surveyed those suffering from opioid use disorder. An overwhelming majority of the participants reported incidents of childhood trauma.

Treatment For PTSD/Trauma and Co-occurring Substance Abuse

Remember, treatment options for co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse do exist. If you found this page for yourself, then hold fast. Do not isolate yourself. You have intrinsic worth and value. If no one else has told you today, your experiences matter. They have great importance. Perhaps you think you don’t need reminding of that. That’s ok too. Whether you believe it or not, your experiences do not define you.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Humans often take our thoughts for granted. We attribute a sense of identity to them They seem to have inherent power over us. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches us to audit our thoughts. To vet them, rather than believing them. Researchers have used CBT to treat victims of sexual assault with co-occurring substance use disorder. A specific kind of CBT, exposure therapy, has also proven effective for treating PTSD.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) contains 2 foundational elements: acceptance and change. The word “dialectic” refers to our ability to reason. DBT teaches us to employ reason, to accept some things, and to change others. DBT hones 4 key skills:

  • Mindfulness: engaging the mind with present people, places, and circumstances
  • Distress tolerance: opening oneself to discomfort and learning to live with it
  • Interpersonal effectiveness: how to clarify one’s intentions in relation to others
  • Emotional regulation: awareness and understanding of why we feel what we feel, and what to do with complicated feelings

Medication

Doctors write prescriptions for a reason. No “magic pill” exists. But we must not neglect the idea that medication can help. Some medications, like methadone, can help people overcome opioid use disorder. When using medication in this capacity, we call it medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Some prescription medications may provide a little relief to trauma symptoms, like anxiety and depression.

What To Do Next

PTSD and trauma do not tell your entire story. Even if you don’t acknowledge it, you have value. Your life has shaped you in many ways. Some of those ways left you with wonderful memories. But, life may also have left you with reprehensible memories. Your past does not dictate your identity.

PTSD impacts more people than we know. Furthermore, it can ensnare a person in addiction. If you or someone that you love struggles with trauma or addiction, reach out to Southeast Addiction now.

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Southeast Addiction Center exists for one purpose: to help addicts establish sustainable recovery.