PTSD Triggers and Substance Abuse

Written by Chris Clancy

“What is addiction, really?” asked the Swiss writer and child abuse expert Alice Miller. “It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of stress.” The often interdependent relationship between addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, bears this out. In fact, the debilitating stress related to the memory of a traumatic event can often create a PTSD trigger, making up the core of an alcohol and drug addiction.

PTSD is defined as a trauma-related or stress-related mental disorder, and PTSD triggers include exposure to a life-threatening situation, serious injury, sexual assault, or the witnessing of a death or the threat of death.

PTSD: It’s not just for veterans

Because it’s been long associated with military combat (“shell shock,” the nickname for certain symptoms of PTSD, dates back to World War I), many mistake PTSD as a disorder that occurs among veterans only.

While military combat is indeed a leading cause of the disorder, it’s far from the only cause. Violent assault, such as a mugging or domestic altercation, natural disasters like floods and fires, sexual assault, and childhood abuse are common PTSD triggers. Really anything that threatens the life or well-being of a person, leaving him or her with lingering feelings of powerlessness, can trigger PTSD.

And while not everyone who’s ever suffered a traumatic event develops PTSD, nearly 9 percent of the U.S. population have suffered some form of PTSD in their lifetime, according to a 2013 study by the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

PTSD Triggers and Substance Abuse: A Vicious Circle

When a person encounters stress–anything from a hectic morning at work to the threat of physical harm–the body’s sympathetic response is triggered, releasing cortisol as the person prepares a “fight or flight” response. As the threat passes, the parasympathetic system takes over, restoring the body to normal functioning. In cases of PTSD, the threat proves so stressful, so traumatic, that the body never fully returns to the parasympathetic mode, leaving a person in a constant, high-stress “fight or flight” mode.

It should come as no surprise, then, that people with PTSD sometimes turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping, a way to numb or escape their feelings of stress. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as two out of ten vets suffering from PTSD also suffer substance abuse problems.

Of course, using drugs and alcohol to counteract the symptoms of PTSD can worsen those symptoms by interrupting sleep patterns, impairing judgment, and increasing risk-taking behavior, which can lead to incarceration, domestic problems, and unemployment.

Because substance abuse impairs memory and perception, and trauma makes substance abuse more likely, both disorders make for a complicated “Dual Diagnosis,” which requires a delicate combination treatment. Dual Diagnosis patients require a whole other level of integrated care, one requiring resources that address both disorders, and each member of the treatment team has experience with both disorders.

Treatment at JourneyPure at the River

If you or a loved one suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder or a chronic substance abuse problem, please contact us today at 844-875-7670. JourneyPure Center for Professional Excellence, on the campus of JourneyPure at the River, is a nature-inspired retreat for men and women professionals to begin a holistic wellness recovery. We offer medically-assisted detox services, individual and group counseling and experiential therapies. Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is ready for you to get healthy and stay healthy.

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