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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction

Post-Traumatic stress disorder and addiction commonly occur together.

The term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) describes an anxiety disorder that may develop after a person lives through a dangerous, extremely violent or potentially life-threatening experience (trauma).

While 3 out of 4 Australians will experience some form of trauma during their lifetime, only 25% of people exposed to traumatic events will develop PTSD.

Traumatic events can be isolated incidents like traffic accidents, natural disasters or random violent acts (i.e. sexual assault, armed robbery); or long-term experiences, such as domestic violence, military combat or ongoing mental and/or sexual abuse.

Contrary to the popular belief that PTSD is essentially a “soldiers’ illness”, the leading cause of PTSD in Australia are severe car accidents.

Common symptoms of PTSD include

  • Intrusive memories, also known as ‘flashbacks’, forcing a person to relive their trauma over and over and often causing panic attacks as the memories rigger the body’s crisis responses
  • Nightmares, insomnia, fear of falling asleep
  • Constantly being on edge and easily startled
  • Emotional numbness, due to subconscious disassociation in order to avoid further distress
  • Going to great length to avoid locations, people and situations that might remind a person of their trauma
  • Periods of hyperarousal, experienced as irritability, anger or extreme anxiety

Most persons experiencing trauma will live through some of these symptoms straight after the traumatic event.

In the majority of cases, the symptoms will cease once and individual has processed their trauma on their own time.

However, if one or more of these symptoms persist for more than a few weeks after a traumatic event has occurred, it is essential to seek professional help.

PTSD sufferers are at high risk of developing additional mental health issues (most commonly depression or panic disorder) and substance use disorders.

How do post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction relate?

Persons suffering from PTSD are in danger of turning to alcohol and drugs as a form of self-medication.

Drinking to excess in particular is not an uncommon behaviour amongst people with PTSD, as alcohol is mostly readily available and can help to achieve dreamless sleep (or rather passing out).

Sadly, when PTSD is combined with alcohol and drug use, the consequences can often be disastrous.

Intoxication can exacerbate symptoms of hyperarousal, putting PTSD sufferers at risk of endangering themselves and others (i.e. seeking out physical confrontation, driving while under the influence, etc).

Such risk taking behaviours can have long reaching consequences, such as relationship break-ups, incarceration or even death.

How important is dual treatment?

When Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction co-occurs it is important to address both issues during treatment. If the issue of PTSD is neglected in favour of addiction counselling, a patient is left with an increased risk of relapse.

To give a patient the best chances at long-term recovery, the causes of PTSD have to be examined in detail in order to develop coping strategies that do not involve drugs and alcohol.

Find out more

Mental Health and Addiction
Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders
Common Co-Occurring Disorders
Mental Health Effects of Ice
Are Mental Health and Addiction Connected?

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