PTSD & Substance Abuse: Is There Hope?

The topic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse is a difficult but important one. Both conditions are misunderstood, stigmatized, and unfortunately interlinked in many cases. The good news is that understanding this connection can pave the way for effective treatment options. In this blog, we aim to highlight this complicated issue, from the causes and symptoms of PTSD to its frequent companion – substance abuse. The goal is to help individuals find a ray of hope through comprehensive and individualized treatment plans, such as those offered by Crossroads.

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops in certain individuals after they get exposed to or observe a distressing incident firsthand. It can develop in people as a result of a singular traumatic event or continuous exposure to multiple traumatic events. We will discuss these events in the symptoms below. Unlike the temporary emotional strain of a less severe traumatic event, PTSD tends to have a long-lasting impact, affecting a person’s ability to function in daily life.

PTSD Symptoms

There are four broad categories the symptoms of PTSD fall into. These are as follows:

1. Flashbacks & Intrusive Memories/Nightmares

Flashbacks and intrusive memories are hallmark symptoms of PTSD. These experiences transport individuals back to the traumatic event as if it were happening all over again. Flashbacks can be vivid and intense, causing a person to relive the sights, sounds, emotions, and even physical sensations of the trauma. These episodes can be triggered by reminders in the environment, such as sounds, smells, or sights associated with the traumatic event.

Intrusive memories, on the other hand, are unwanted recollections of the trauma that can pop into the person’s mind unexpectedly. They can be distressing and intrusive, often causing significant emotional distress. Nightmares are a related symptom, where the trauma plays out during sleep, causing the person to wake up feeling anxious, fearful, and even panicked. These symptoms can lead to sleep disturbances and an overall feeling of being overwhelmed.

2. Emotional Numbness or Avoidance

Emotional numbness and avoidance are coping mechanisms that individuals with PTSD might develop to shield themselves from the overwhelming emotional impact of the trauma. Emotional numbness involves feeling detached from one’s emotions, as if they are unable to experience joy, love, or any strong feelings. This can lead to a sense of emptiness and a feeling of being disconnected from the world and from other people.

Avoidance, on the other hand, involves deliberately steering clear of anything that reminds the person of the traumatic event. This might include avoiding specific places, people, conversations, or even thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma. While avoidance can provide temporary relief, it often limits the person’s ability to engage in meaningful activities and relationships, hindering their overall quality of life.

3. Hyperarousal

Hyperarousal symptoms reflect an elevated state of vigilance and reactivity that individuals with PTSD may experience. This heightened state of arousal can manifest in various ways:

  • Irritability and Anger: People with PTSD might have a shorter fuse and find themselves easily angered or frustrated. They may struggle to regulate their emotions and have intense emotional outbursts, even in situations that wouldn’t typically provoke such a reaction.
  • Hyper-Vigilance: This refers to a constant state of being on high alert, as if anticipating danger at any moment. People with hyper-vigilance might have difficulty relaxing, often scanning their environment for potential threats. This can lead to exhaustion and a persistent sense of anxiety.

4. Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood

PTSD often brings about significant shifts in a person’s thought patterns and emotional experiences. These changes might include:

  • Negative Self-Perception: People with PTSD may develop a distorted view of themselves as damaged, unworthy, or even responsible for the traumatic event. This can erode their self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Distorted Worldview: Trauma can lead to a skewed perception of the world as a dangerous and unpredictable place. The person might lose their sense of safety and trust in others.
  • Pervasive Negative Emotions: Feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, and fear are common in individuals with PTSD. These emotions can be intense and persistent, affecting their ability to experience positive emotions.
  • Difficulty Concentrating: Many people with PTSD struggle with focus and concentration. Their minds may frequently drift back to the traumatic event, making it hard to engage fully in tasks and conversations.

What Causes PTSD?

Although anyone can develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, some factors increase the risk. These include:

  1. Combat and War: Military personnel who have been deployed to war zones often experience traumatic events such as combat, witnessing injuries, and the loss of fellow soldiers. The constant exposure to life-threatening situations can lead to the development of PTSD, as the individual’s mental and emotional resilience is repeatedly tested.
  2. Physical or Sexual Assault: Experiencing physical or sexual assault can have profound and lasting effects on an individual’s mental well-being. These traumatic events not only violate a person’s physical boundaries but also shatter their sense of safety and trust, often leading to intense fear, shame, and vulnerability.
  3. Natural Disasters: Surviving natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis can trigger PTSD. The overwhelming chaos, loss, and lack of control during these events can leave individuals with a deep sense of helplessness and fear, which can persist long after the event has passed.
  4. Medical Trauma: Serious medical procedures, life-threatening illnesses, or sudden medical emergencies can be traumatic and trigger PTSD. The fear, pain, and vulnerability associated with medical trauma can lead to ongoing distress and anxiety.
  5. Witnessing Violence: Being a witness to violence, whether it’s in the context of domestic abuse, community violence, or terrorist attacks, can have a lasting impact on an individual’s mental health. Witnessing such events can evoke a sense of horror and powerlessness that lingers.
  6. Pre-existing Mental Health Conditions: Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, may be more susceptible to developing PTSD after a traumatic event. The event can exacerbate their existing struggles and complicate their recovery.
  7. Witnessing Traumatic Events: Even if a person wasn’t directly involved in a traumatic event, witnessing it can still lead to the development of PTSD. Bystanders to accidents, violent incidents, or disasters might experience significant emotional distress due to what they have seen.
  8. Lack of Support After the Event: A strong support system is crucial in the aftermath of a traumatic event. If an individual lacks adequate social and emotional support, they might struggle to process their feelings and experiences, increasing the risk of developing PTSD.
  9. The Severity of the Traumatic Event: The intensity and severity of the traumatic event can play a role in the development of PTSD. Events that involve a higher degree of threat to life or physical integrity are more likely to trigger the disorder.
  10. Individual Coping Mechanisms: How an individual copes with the aftermath of a traumatic event can impact whether or not they develop PTSD. Some coping mechanisms, such as avoidance or substance abuse, can hinder recovery and contribute to the development of the disorder.

Many People Who Have PTSD Also Struggle With Substance Abuse. Why is That?

Many factors explain why people who develop PTSD also struggle with drug and substance abuse as well as alcoholism. These include:

  1. Self-Medication: Dealing with the intrusive and debilitating symptoms of PTSD is not a piece of cake. It’s downright distressing. To cope with symptoms such as nightmares, depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, people start medicating themselves, often without having consulted a doctor. This is because these substances numb them out and offer a temporary escape from the extreme pain of the trauma. However, since drugs are chemicals, they become addicted to them.
  2. Coping With Emotional Distress: Since PTSD comes in the form of overwhelming and intense waves of emotions, it is quite a challenge to manage it. To cope with the emotional distress of traumatic experiences, people turn to alcohol or drugs. They get a temporary relief and feel more in control of their emotions with substance abuse. However, this consumption is harmful to their overall health.
  3. Impaired Emotional Regulation: When people develop PTSD, their ability to regulate their emotions in a healthy manner gets disrupted. They start feeling intense sadness, fear, and anger, and have a hard time channeling these emotions in the right direction. Same is the case with substance abuse – it impairs emotional regulation, making it difficult for people to cope with their symptoms of PTSD, reinforcing the cycle of addiction.
  4. Co-Occurring Disorders: More often than not, substance abuse and PTSD appear in the same person. The existence of both the conditions in the same individual at the same time is called co-occurring disorder. Substance abuse and trauma are also interlinked in a complex way, as they both affect and aggravate each other. The PTSD symptoms sufferers feel as a result of traumatic experiences make them develop substance abuse, while the symptoms of PTSD get intensified by PTSD.
  5. Neurobiological Factors: The human brain’s reward system and neurotransmitter functioning get affected by both substance abuse and PTSD. Their brain chemistry gets dysregulated due to trauma, making them want to regulate it with alcohol and drugs. When they fall into that, substance abuse further dysregulates their brain function, making it nearly impossible for the sufferer to break out of a vicious cycle of addiction, further aggravating PTSD symptoms.

Crossroads addresses both substance abuse and PTSD in the same treatment plan for people who are struggling with both the conditions. Our integrated treatment approach not only targets trauma symptoms, but also the addiction ones, offering a higher chance of recovery and better quality of life. Seeking professional help from healthcare providers who specialize in treating co-occurring disorders is important in order to prepare an individualized treatment plan.

How Crossroads Facilitates Treatment Plans for PTSD & Substance Abuse

Crossroads offers individual therapy and intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) to help people with PTSD. We treat PTSD and substance abuse addictions in the following ways:

  • Individual Therapy

This includes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or trauma focused therapy, both of which have proven to be effective in treating PTSD. Individual therapy helps with:

  • Trauma Processing: In individual therapy, people get a safe, unconditionally respectful, and confidential space that helps them feel comfortable opening up about the trauma they experienced. The professional therapists at Crossroads have been trained to provide trauma-focused therapy. This equips them with the skills to help people make sense of their trauma, beliefs, and emotions. This helps reduces the distressing PTSD symptoms.
  • Coping Skills Development: The therapists at Crossroads work with individuals collaboratively to develop effective coping strategies to manage PTSD symptoms. These skills include stress management strategies, emotional regulation techniques, grounding exercises, and relaxation techniques. Individual therapy facilitates personalized and tailored interventions that fulfill the specific needs of the person.
  • Addressing Co-occurring Problems: If you want to address co-occurring challenges or disorders alongside PTSD, you will get the chance to do that with the individual therapy at Crossroads. This includes finding solutions for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or any other mental health issues that are typically linked to PTSD.
  • Building A Therapeutic Relationship: Part of the individual therapy at Crossroads is the relationship between the therapist and the individual. The therapist offers a non-judgmental space, empathy, and support, helping foster trust and promote healing. The individual’s engagement in therapy gets facilitated by this therapeutic alliance and treatment outcomes get enhanced.

A person’s inclination of developing PTSD may vary from one person to another, because not everyone develops this disorder after experiencing a single traumatic event. Factors like pre-existing mental health conditions, past exposure to trauma, the support systems available, and resilience of the individual weigh in on the possibility of the person developing PTSD. After you face a traumatic event, you need to seek professional help for effective treatment and timely intervention.

  • Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP) Therapy

The IOP therapy by Crossroads is a structured treatment program that offers more intensive support than conventional outpatient therapy does. This happens while the people continue to live at home, maintaining their everyday routine. We provide:

  • Structured Support: A structured environment with scheduled therapy sessions and group activities is offered by Crossroads. This gives the person a sense of consistency and stability, which helps people with PTSD who usually struggle with developing a sense of structure in their lives.
  • Comprehensive Treatment: We include several therapeutic modalities personalized to the needs of the person. This includes a plan including CBT, trauma-focused therapy, group therapy, evidence-based interventions, as well as individual therapy. A comprehensive approach like this addresses the complicated nature of PTSD by taking a holistic approach to therapy. Individuals develop effective coping skills and strategies as a result of this.
  • Peer Support: Group therapy sessions in which people can connect with other individuals who have faced similar traumas helps people feel validated, which is just what the group therapy sessions at Crossroads provide. Peer support helps reduce feelings of isolation, normalizes experiences, and fosters a sense of understanding and belonging.
  • Flexibility: The Crossroads IOP therapy program offers more flexibility compared to the inpatient treatment programs, helping people take therapy sessions while still taking care of daily responsibilities such as caregiving, school, or work. This approach makes therapy more accessible as well as sustainable for people who have PTSD.

To help people having PTSD, the Crossroads individual therapy and Crossroads IOP therapy programs are very effective. However, choosing between one approach and the other depends on how severe the symptoms are, the level of support that is required, and the circumstances and preferences of the person.

The Bottom Line

PTSD and substance abuse often go hand in hand, but understanding this relationship is the first step toward effective treatment and long-lasting recovery. Specialized, individualized treatment options like those offered by Crossroads give hope to those caught in this vicious cycle. If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD and substance abuse, know that help is available and recovery is possible. Reach out to Crossroads and take the first step toward a better life.