Perhaps it’s obvious to some people, but for others, it comes as a surprise to learn that underneath their substance abuse lies a mental illness. And one of the most common types of psychological disorders is post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. Often, those who are faced with trauma will have symptoms of anxiety as a result. The typical symptoms of someone who has experienced a traumatic event and who has not sufficiently healed from that life-threatening experience may include anxiety, extreme emotional fluctuation, flashbacks, loneliness, anger, irritability, bad dreams, and frightening thoughts. An individual might also exhibit symptoms of avoidance, such as staying away from certain places to avoid reliving the traumatic experience or forgetting the experience entirely, such a selective amnesia.
PTSD can occur in children if they’ve experienced abuse, for example, and in adults who have witnessed and participated in violence during wartime. In fact, there are two major categories of individuals who might experience a series of traumatic events: children and veterans. According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, about 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys go through at least one trauma. Of those children and teens who have had a trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys develop PTSD.
In addition to the symptoms just mentioned, one’s beliefs about life and the way the world is ordered can change instantly. A deep trust in the world prior to trauma can easily turn into distrust of other people, certain circumstances, and even oneself. This can be especially true if trauma repeats itself, such as witnessing death in war or ongoing sexual abuse by a family member. Repeated trauma can cause a worsening of anxiety, feeling a constant high level of alert and paranoia.
In fact, anyone suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, or PTSD might feel as though emotions come out of nowhere and that those emotions are too chaotic to manage. It might feel like they are unpredictable and disrupting. This is often a common symptom of PTSD that can lead to making poor choices in life. The inability to manage emotions can lead to dysfunctional coping mechanisms such as drug use, drinking, cutting, aggression, and other forms of risky behavior. It can be challenging to manage feelings when they seem frightening or overwhelming. They might be accompanied by fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. These emotions might also lead to shutting down.
It might seem that the use of drugs and alcohol can help manage these difficult symptoms. However, using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for challenging emotions and thoughts will only become problematic later. It’s possible that an addiction might develop. And pushing the pain away with substances only makes the inner emotional turmoil worse.
Sadly, the combination of PTSD and addiction is common for many Veterans, adults abused as children, and others who have experienced a traumatic event in life. This is such a common occurrence within the mental health field that there are experts devoted to this. Many books have been written about the presence of addiction alongside undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts in the field suggest the following to those who struggle with both PTSD and an addiction:
- Stay safe.
- Respect yourself.
- Use coping mechanisms – not substances – to manage the pain.
- Make the present and future better than the past.
- Learn to trust.
- Take good care of your body.
- Get help from those people you trust.
- To heal fully from PTSD, become substance-free.
- If one method of healing doesn’t work, try something else.
Treating PTSD effectively includes both psychotherapy and medication. The medication can help manage fluctuating moods and high levels of anxiety. However, therapy can provide ways to cope with the anxiety, facilitate awareness of triggers that might prompt a distressing memory, and provide comfort through a difficult time. However, the most important part of therapy is to eventually uncover the emotions of terror that you dissociated from during the life-threatening event. Once those emotions are brought to the surface and finally experienced, that’s when the flashbacks and the emotional deregulation will cease. And with the healing that takes place with treatment, the need for drug use as a means to cope will also disappear.
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