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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD is a mental health illness caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Patients experiencing PTSD, many of whom may be war veterans, survivors of a violent act, or natural disaster most often turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress.

Most individuals who have experienced and suffered through traumatic events will eventually overcome the depression, anxiety, and agitation caused by those experiences. However, when PTSD develops, these symptoms do not just go away. They may last for days, months, or years after the event. PTSD can come about after witnessing or experiencing the following:

  • serious accident and injury
  • military combat
  • acts of terrorism
  • natural disasters
  • sexual or physical assault 
  • death of a loved one
  • victim of gun violence

PTSD and drug addiction often coexist as a response to serious trauma. 

 

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    Symptoms and Effects of PTSD

    Symptoms of PTSD can evolve. Symptoms might appear within a short period (3 months) of a traumatic episode. It might however take longer (years) until the disorder fully matures.

    PTSD impacts the area of the brain associated with emotions and memory. A healthy brain will tell the difference between memories and experiences to present experiences. However, in a patient with PTSD, this process is interfered with. An individual suffering from PTSD reacts to current stimuli in the present environment that acts as a reminder to them of past trauma. The brain responds as though the individual is still present in that experience. This triggers anxiety, fear, and stress.

    PTSD symptoms

    •         Intrusive memories-these are repeated memories of the traumatic episode, night terrors about the event, extreme physical reactions to reminders of the traumatic event, and vivid flashbacks of traumatic episodes.
    •         Avoidance symptoms-these present themselves as persistent, effortful, avoidance of the stressful trauma-related stimuli after the event. This becomes an attempt to avoid talking or thinking about the dramatic episode and trying to avoid people, places, and activities that act as a trigger to the memory of the event. Drug abuse and alcoholism fall into this category of avoidance symptoms. The individual suffering from PTSD may use these substances to numb fear or avoid the memories.
    •         Drastic changes in thinking or mood-these symptoms include emotional numbness, being incapable of positive emotions, difficulty in keeping close relationships, negative feelings about self or others, and memory lapses. These negative alterations in cognition and mood may also include persistent and distorted negative beliefs, lack of interest in former interests, self-blame, and feeling emotionally flat.
    •         Changes in emotional reactions-these symptoms include alterations in reactivity and arousal that started or worsened after the trauma experience. They include insomnia, irritability, overwhelming shame or guilt, self-destructive behavior e.g. reckless driving and binge drinking, and feeling on guard at all times.

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    Treatments For PTSD

    PTSD therapy has three main goals:

    • to teach you skills to cope 
    • restore your self-esteem
    • Improve and manage your symptoms

    Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)

    Many PTSD therapies fall under cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The main idea is to counter the thought patterns that are disturbing the sufferer’s life. This might happen by concentrating on where your fears come from or talking about your trauma.

    Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

    CPT is a course of treatment taken over 12 weeks with weekly sessions of 60 to 90 minutes. You first start with talking about the traumatic event with your therapist and how your thoughts related to it. You will then write in detail about what happened. This is a process that will help you examine how you think about your trauma and figure out new ways to live with it. For example, if you have been blaming yourself for something, your therapist will help you take into account all the things that happened that were beyond your control. This will help you move forward accepting and knowing that deep down this was not your fault regardless of how things went.

    Prolonged exposure therapy

    If you have a habit of avoiding things that remind you of your past traumatic experience, prolonged exposure therapy should help you confront them. This treatment involves 8 to15 sessions with each being 90 minutes.

    In the early stages of your treatment, your therapist will teach you breathing techniques that will ease your anxiety when you remember or think about what happened. Later you will jot down a list of the things you’ve been avoiding and learn how to fix them one by one. In a different session, you will recount the stressful experience to your therapist then go home and listen to a recording of yourself. Doing this as homework overtime should help ease your symptoms.

    Cognitive restructuring

    This is a skill that aids PTSD sufferers to learn how to pick out upsetting thoughts and beliefs about their situations and the world. Once a person can identify these thoughts and beliefs they are taught to find new ways of thinking that will help the person better cope with their unique situation. Not only does this help in relieving symptoms of PTSD, but it also helps with general anxiety, depression, and worry.

    Stress Inoculation Training

    This is another form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for PTSD. CBT is often a used form of psychotherapy that can assist you to recognize and change negative thoughts that have been influencing your behavior. Similar to how vaccination acts in preventing a particular disease in your body, stress inoculation training assists you in quickly defending yourself against PTSD-related anxiety and fear when you are exposed to triggers, cues, and reminders of these symptoms. This form of psychotherapy usually runs in 90-minute sessions over several weeks. It may be done in a therapy group, however, it is mostly done one-on-one with a therapist. By exposing you to mild forms of stress, one’s confidence is boosted so that you can easily respond effectively when trauma-related kills occur.

    Additional PTSD Treatments

    Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing (EMDR)

    With this treatment, you might not need to tell your therapist about your experience. Instead, you concentrate on your experience while watching or listening to something they’re doing, maybe flashing a light, moving a hand, or making a sound. The goal with this treatment is to be able to think about something positive while you remember your trauma. It takes about three months of weekly sessions.

    Present Centered Therapy

    Present-centered therapy is a time-limited treatment therapy for PTSD that mainly focuses on increasing adaptive responses to current life stressors and difficulties that are directly or indirectly linked to trauma for PTSD symptoms.

    Coexisting PTSD and addiction

    PTSD changes the brain’s chemistry in much the same way substance abuse and addiction do. Mostly these disorders form at the same time. They will feed off one another as well. The same trauma that perpetuated PTSD can also be a trigger to a substance use disorder.

    Following an experience involving a traumatic event, the brain will produce fewer endorphins which is one of the hormones that helps us feel calm and happy. People suffering from PTSD may turn to mood-enhancing drugs and alcohol which increases the endorphin levels. Over time, they might become drug reliant in search of relief from the negative feelings of depression, irritability, and anxiety.

    Individuals suffering from PTSD are easily prone to panic attacks and violent outbursts which can be hard for friends or family members to witness. Feelings of guilt over this outburst can lead patients with PTSD to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Continued use of drugs or alcohol in this way can lead to addiction.

    Drug and alcohol addiction are also affected by memory. An addicted individual’s brain is more susceptible to triggers, or people and places associated with drug use. That can lead to cravings. Post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction triggers can intertwine and intensify associated with both disorders.PTSD is highly manageable, and if you have a family member or close friend, are dealing with PTSD and /or addiction do not hesitate to seek help.

    This content is verified and moderated by Dr. Brendan Bickley

    This content is verified and moderated by Dr. Brendan Bickley

    Dr. Bickley graduated from U.C. Irvine with honors: Phi Beta Kappa, Golden Key International Honor Society, Cum Laude. He has been featured on national radio and print media. He is also a frequent lecturer at National Conferences. He holds an A.S. degree in Drug & Alcohol Studies, and two B.A. degrees in Criminology & Psychology, and masters and doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology. He is a licensed California Drug & Alcohol Counselor Level II, a licensed Clinical Supervisor and is certified in treating Eating Disorders.

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