When someone experiences a traumatic event, it changes their brain chemistry. They no longer look at or experience the world in the same way, whether they’re conscious of this shift or not. Some post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers turn to drugs or alcohol to take the edge off, keep intrusive memories at bay, or disconnect from what they’re feeling. Eventually, this self-medicating can become addiction.

How PTSD Can Trigger Addiction

Trauma can include, but is certainly not limited to, stressors like actual or threatened serious injury, the exposure to or threat of death, and actual or threatened sexual violence. Someone can experience one of these stressors or simply witness it – either situation has the potential to cause PTSD.

When the brain experiences a traumatic experience, it produces fewer endorphins, the chemical that makes us feel happy. People with PTSD may use mood-enhancing drugs or alcohol to achieve that elusive feel-good emotion. When this effort is successful, they may begin to rely on the substances to relieve all their PTSD symptoms, from depression to anxiety to irritability.

PTSD sufferers have an incredibly high chance of developing an addiction. They want to alleviate the distress they feel from their PTSD symptoms, but substance use is a short-term solution. Drugs and alcohol can only mask the symptoms that exist, which can make them come back stronger when the high wears off, resulting in an even more aggressive need to use.

The Unhealthy Combination of PTSD and Addiction

PTSD rewires the brain and impacts memory and emotions. While a healthy brain can tell the difference between memories and the present, PTSD can interfere with this process. If the current environment you’re in reminds you of your past trauma, the brain will respond as though you’re in the past – those feelings of stress and fear will emerge immediately.

Prolonged drug and alcohol use also rewires the brain. The user, over time, needs their substance of choice to feel “normal.” Any PTSD triggers can make a person want to use and this intermingling of PTSD and addiction can intensify the side effects of both disorders.

Because of the complex and interwoven nature of PTSD and substance abuse, it is essential to treat both conditions simultaneously for the best possible chance of recovery. A dual diagnosis is necessary to ensure that after withdrawal and detox, the person undergoes the right kind of therapy and treatment in holistic rehab to rewire the PTSD-affected brain.

Understanding the Desire to Self-Medicate

When the body encounters stress, the natural sympathetic response is to do one of three things: move toward the threat (fight), away from the threat (flight), or dissociate (freeze). Afterward, the parasympathetic system takes charge so the body can return to normal functioning.

Unfortunately, in cases of PTSD, that return to normal does not occur, so the body is always primed for fight/flight/freeze reaction. As a result, a person is never fully at rest. They are vigilant about threats and their perception of a real threat may be distorted. This cycle is exhausting and can lead to chronic physical and mental health problems, including addiction.

  • Addiction after PTSD is an attempt to self-regulate.
  • The intent is to ward off intrusive memories, disconnect, and erase hypervigilance.
  • Though alcohol and opiates may be effective at managing PTSD symptoms in the moment, they can worsen depression and anxiety.
  • Treating the trauma that caused the PTSD is essential – but it is not enough to stop the alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Addiction is likely to persist on its own because the substances have taken over the body’s reward system and distorted it, creating a need for more of the drug of choice to avoid withdrawal.

The Importance of a Dual Diagnosis

In successful dual diagnosis and treatment, clients come to understand how the addiction they developed helped them tolerate their PTSD – and they must understand which trauma symptoms they have been trying to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

The trauma symptoms will return when the substances are gone from the body, and they will be more intense. Treatment makes it possible to rid the body of its addiction and learn the skills to cope with the triggers of PTSD – without substances.

It is essential to address both PTSD and addiction in dual diagnosis trauma recovery. The substance abuse is powerful and it has the strength to undermine the success of other treatments because of its affect on memory, judgment, and perception. That should sound familiar – PTSD has the same power.

Holistic rehab is designed for people who have a dual diagnosis and need targeted treatment for their addiction and mental health. Get the recovery support you need from the therapeutic team at Beachside Rehab. Contact our trained admissions counselors at 866-349-1770 to discuss your individual needs and how luxury rehab can work for you.


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