Terrifying flashbacks, disturbing dreams, intrusive memories, and social isolation are all part of the nightmare of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is a serious anxiety disorder caused by exposure to a severely disturbing experience. Some of the traumatic experiences associated with PTSD include:
- Military combat
- Acts of terrorism
- Sexual assault
- Violent crime
- Physical or sexual abuse
- A natural disaster or fire
- A severe illness or disturbing medical diagnosis
You do not have to live through a traumatic event to experience the symptoms of PTSD. Losing a close friend or relative in traumatic circumstances, or even hearing about a trauma that somehow touches your life, can trigger PTSD. The symptoms may appear immediately after the event, or they may manifest themselves months or years later. The emotional distress, intrusive thoughts, and unpredictable flashbacks of PTSD greatly increase the risk of drug or alcohol abuse.
PTSD affects nearly 7 percent of American adults, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Approximately 3.6 of men and 9.7 of women in the US have experienced PTSD within their lifetime. Among teenage boys and girls, 3.7 of males and 6.3 percent of females have experienced PTSD.
How Common Is Substance Abuse With PTSD?
Substance abuse is a common side effect of PTSD. Current Opinions in Psychiatry notes that lifetime rates of substance abuse are as high as 43 percent among people with PTSD, a figure that is much higher than the general population. Among combat veterans, the rate of substance abuse is as high as 75 percent. While alcohol and drugs may initially help relieve the emotional trauma, hostility, and fear associated with PTSD, the neurological effects of these substances can eventually make the symptoms of this disorder much worse.
How Is PTSD Recognized?
The psychiatric community groups PTSD symptoms into four different categories:
- Intrusive flashbacks and nightmares. These memories of the traumatic event interfere with day-to-day activities, making it difficult to hold down a job, maintain healthy relationships, or interact socially with others. Events or people that trigger these memories can cause equally disturbing reactions.
- Avoidance of trauma triggers. In order to avoid the physical and emotional responses to traumatic memories, the individual with PTSD will often become socially isolated. Drugs or alcohol may be used as a way to escape these trauma triggers.
- Negative moods and emotions. PTSD can cause depression, anxiety, hostility, or emotional numbness. People with PTSD may have trouble leading fulfilling lives or maintaining relationships with others because of their fear, anxiety, or hopelessness about the future.
- Hypersensitivity. People with PTSD can become angry, hostile, panicked, or frightened very quickly. They may react intensely to incidents or objects that seem insignificant to others. This hypersensitivity, also called hyper-arousal, can cause sleep disturbances, violent outbursts, guilt, shame, or an increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse.
PTSD can cause physical reactions as well as emotional and psychological responses. Individuals with this disorder often suffer from insomnia, stomach disturbances, headaches, and other psychosomatic symptoms.
Who Is Susceptible?
Why does PTSD affect some individuals rather than others? In many cases, PTSD is associated with a feeling of helplessness during the traumatic event. For instance, a woman who was unable to free herself from a rapist or a combat veteran who saw his fellow soldiers being taken hostage may be haunted by feelings of powerlessness about the event. They may even feel an unjustified sense of guilt or shame because they were unable to do anything to stop the incident. Other factors that make certain people more vulnerable to PTSD include:
- Another co-occurring mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder
- A personal history of traumatic events, such as an abusive childhood or a high-risk career
- A lack of emotional support from family, friends, or coworkers
- A family background of mental illness
The severity of PTSD symptoms can change over time. An event that caused intense psychological trauma in adolescence, for example, may become easier to cope with in adulthood.
Is Help Available?
Having access to therapeutic treatment and a strong support network greatly increases the chances of recovering from PTSD and leading a healthy, rewarding life. Fortunately, there are several effective treatment options available for PTSD:
- Grief and trauma counseling. Therapists trained in grief or trauma resolution can help the patient reprocess the emotions associated with the event.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This behavioral modification therapy can help patients with PTSD learn to cope with the repetitive, negative thoughts and memories that characterize the disorder.
- Exposure therapy.Gradual exposure to the subject of trauma in a safe, clinically monitored environment can help reduce the severity of the patient’s response to the event.
- Psychiatric medications. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be extremely helpful at relieving anxiety and reducing feelings of shame, guilt, or depression.
- EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing).This unique therapy helps the patient process traumatic memories through rapid eye movements directed by a trained therapist.
At Axis, we provide compassionate rehab services for people struggling with the aftereffects of trauma. If you or a loved one needs help with PTSD and substance abuse, call our intake counselors today to learn more about our innovative, personalized recovery programs.