PTSD and Addiction: Is there a link? People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often end up also fighting addiction. Statistics show this happens more than half the time. The reasons for the development of addiction vary but generally involve efforts to dull or temporarily remove the anxiety and stress caused by memories of the event.
What is PTSD?
Once associated solely with combat veterans, PTSD is now recognized as a psychobiological mental disorder that can affect anyone following a traumatic event. Traumatic events include combat experiences, natural disasters, accidents, illness, and sudden losses. The event’s effect is highly dependent upon the person. What is traumatic for one may not be traumatic for another. That is why not every combat veteran experiences PTSD.
PTSD and Addiction
There is no certainty that someone suffering from PTSD will also become addicted, however the sensitivity to addiction is higher for those with PTSD. One of the reasons for this is that PTSD is often overlooked or misdiagnosed. When this occurs, the treatment prescribed or the lack of any treatment leaves the sufferer to seek other forms of relief. Substances like alcohol and drugs are typical “refuges” for PTSD sufferers.
People become addicted to substances for a variety of reasons. There can be a genetic predisposition. It can be due to environmental factors. It can stem from “running with the wrong crowd.” When it relates to PTSD, the cause is biologically and neurologically based. The cause/effect relationship between PTSD and addiction is complex and not yet entirely understood. Progress is being made and a study1 published by the Society for Neuroscience, reports,
“abnormal dopamine signals in the prefrontal cortex may underlie the ability of traumatic memories to predispose individuals to addiction by increasing their sensitivity to the rewarding effects of drugs such as opioids.”
In non-doctor lingo, the study finds that memories of traumatic events create conditions where the use of an addictive substance “rewards” the sufferer. The reward is powerful enough to drive continued use to the point of addiction, and the resulting combination of PTSD and addiction is terrible for those involved for the sufferer, their families, and friends.
What are the signs of PTSD?
Since PTSD is often missed or misdiagnosed, what are the signs of PTSD? One of the problematic aspects of PTSD is it can occur months or years following the event. Fortunately, there are warning signs that are useful in spotting PTSD. These include:
- Reliving an event excessively
- Avoiding anything that reminds the person of the event, or people in general
- Feelings of guilt, fear, anxiety, and others
- Anxiety attacks
- Dramatic mood swings
- Changes in behavior
For individuals living alone, self-diagnosis of PTSD may be impossible. PTSD is non- linear and can show up two years or more after the event. This is not to be confused with Acute Stress Disorder which happens directly after a traumatic experience. People who have had a severe traumatic experience such as combat, loss of a family member, or abuse, may seem perfectly all right at first and then get “triggered” much later, exhibiting the first signs of PTSD at that time.
Even close friends and family members may not notice symptoms. For those in family situations the chance of recognition is higher, but because of the difficulty in verifying PTSD, identification may not be successful. For those who are interested, the ADAA provides a self-assessment PTSD screening tool online. For obvious reasons, this should not be considered a real diagnosis. Use it to find out if PTSD might be present then act as necessary.
What are the signs of addiction?
In cases where PTSD is missed, signs of addiction are another clue that people can use get help for the sufferer. Signs of addiction can include the following:
- Giving up social activities if the substance is not available there
- Using large amounts of the substance
- Denial of an issue
- Secret stashes of the substance
- Use of the substance in secret or alone
- Diverting money from other needs to purchase the substance
As with the diagnosis of PTSD, substance abuse and addiction symptoms can be difficult to spot unless you are with the sufferer continually. On the other hand, they can be easier to identify than those of PTSD. That is not necessarily good news. The addiction will have lagged the onset of PTSD. In the meantime, the person has suffered needlessly.
The bottom line
While PTSD is difficult to diagnose, it is not impossible. Approximately 70% of American adults have experienced a traumatic event. Of those, around 20% develop PTSD. The link between PTSD and addiction is real and affects over half of the individuals suffering from the disorder. Awareness, compassion, and treatment can limit suffering and stop addiction before it starts. The key is to be aware of the potential for the disorder to develop and remain on the lookout for symptoms. If you suspect someone you know or love is suffering, seek help as soon as possible.You can even call us here at CARUS Recovery for a no-obligation discussion of your situation, or that of someone you love. Call 877-225-7724 or contact us today.