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Can PTSD Cause Substance Addiction?

A woman working through her trauma and substance abuse during an individual therapy session.
PTSD can be so devastating that it leads to alcohol or drug use just to cope with the symptoms.

Think back to a time or event that was particularly hard for you. The thought of it now may bring back a twinge of sadness, but you’re probably able to move on with the rest of your day and forget about it.

Now imagine having to relive that moment and feel the full effects of it every single day. This is what your loved one feels because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It’s hard to even imagine the trauma your loved one has experienced – whether it’s from serving in the military, being in a car accident or witnessing some horrific event or crime. And now your loved one is using alcohol or drugs to try to drown out the pain.

Why? This article will explore what your loved one is going through with PTSD and why it’s led to substance abuse.

What PTSD Does to a Person

Normally, when we feel threatened or scared, our fight or flight response will take over to protect us from the danger. In other words, our stress response helps keep us alive. But when our body’s stress response keeps triggering after the dangerous event has come and gone, that’s when we experience PTSD.

For your loved one, this stress response disrupts their everyday life because of the way it triggers regularly. They relive the event in nightmares, eventually fearing or losing the ability to sleep. But even when awake, the trauma manifests itself through flashbacks and negative thoughts.

As PTSD worsens, your loved one begins to act out, with sudden, angry outbursts and impulsive behaviors that are out of character for them. They’re living in a constant state of fear and paranoia, avoiding places and people that remind them of the event. And if they can’t avoid the triggers, they experience incredible anxiety, panic and fear, just like when the trauma actually occurred.

Eventually, PTSD changes the way your loved one’s brain works. Because of the ongoing firing of stress hormones, the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for fear and emotions – stays in a constant state of activity, keeping your loved one on high alert. And soon, the hippocampus, or the part of the brain that controls memory, grows smaller, effecting your loved one’s memories.

To cope with these symptoms, many turn to therapy, physical activity or avoidance. But if these attempts don’t work or if your loved one is too ashamed or scared to open up about what they’re going through, they rely on alcohol or drugs to escape.

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The Connection Between PTSD and Substance Abuse

It’s true that drugs and alcohol can help relieve the symptoms of PTSD – at least, for a short time. But why, and what exactly is the catch?

For starters, high levels of stress from PTSD trigger increased amounts of adrenaline. Drugs like alcohol, marijuana and opioids can help combat these unwanted rushes of adrenaline by increasing the amounts of calming and feel-good chemicals like dopamine in the brain.

Soon, these drugs become the go-to coping mechanism for those suffering from PTSD because of how quickly and effectively they help relieve unwanted fear, anxiety and depression. But the problem is the slippery slope this can lead to.

As your loved one relies on these drugs more and more, their brain loses its ability to produce stress and feel-good chemicals in a natural and healthy way. It builds up a tolerance to the drugs and needs more of them to continue making your loved one feel good.

While all this is going on behind the scenes, your loved one starts to experience even worse fear, panic and anxiety if they stop using drugs – feelings that are even worse than just the PTSD. In order to avoid both withdrawal symptoms and PTSD triggers, they must now maintain a substance addiction.

While a grim reality, there’s always hope for your loved one to recover from both PTSD and substance addiction. In fact, credible addiction treatment centers like The Raleigh House offer evidence-based, dual diagnosis treatments proven to help heal the brain from the damage caused by both PTSD and addiction.

Your Loved One Can Find Relief from PTSD and Addiction at The Raleigh House

It’s nearly impossible to truly understand what your loved one is going through. But at The Raleigh House in Denver, Colorado, we know. We understand what your loved one is thinking and feeling, and we have over 10 years of experience treating PTSD and addiction.

When your loved one comes to our wellness lodge called The Ranch, they’ll be in a safe and comforting place to face their addiction and trauma triggers and develop ways to overcome them. There’s hope for your loved one to be the healthy and happy person they once were and we’re ready to help them.

Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about our treatment programs.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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