In addiction treatment, one of the most common links to the development of substance abuse disorders is the presence of a mental health condition. Substance abuse often exacerbates symptoms of both addiction and mental health conditions, creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to break without professional help. Unresolved trauma is a common thread in the development of addiction and it often contributes to addiction’s initial development. Left untreated, many people struggle with attempts to self-medicate and leave themselves in a worsened state.

PTSD and Trauma

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event may lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma. Situations in which a person experiences anxiety or high levels of stress can cause these conditions to develop. These are highly individual experiences as not everyone who has gone through traumatic events develops these conditions. In most of these cases, situations that leave a person feeling out of control or powerless can be catalysts.

The most common experiences that lead to the development of PTSD or trauma are:

  • Military combat
  • Sexual assault
  • Childhood abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Violence

While experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety in these situations is a natural response, for those who develop PTSD or trauma, those feelings do not go away after the event has occurred. Symptoms of PTSD and trauma may develop shortly after the experience or even several years after it has happened.

Symptoms of PTSD and Trauma

Symptoms of these PTSD and trauma can vary, but some of the most common experiences are:

  • Avoidance: A person may avoid people, places, or things that remind them of the traumatic event
  • Re-experiencing: It is not uncommon for those who have experienced traumatic events to experience nightmares, flashbacks, or scary thoughts
  • Reactivity: Many people experience a feeling of being “on edge” and may have difficulty sleeping, may be more irritable, or be easily frightened
  • Mood changes: Traumatic experiences can cause a person to lose interest in things they once enjoyed, develop a negative self-image, or struggle with feelings of guilt.

Which Comes First: Trauma or Addiction?

There is a complex relationship between mental health, life experiences, and substance abuse. It is not uncommon for those who experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression to look for an escape through substance use. In most situations, one condition tends to predate the other. Following a traumatic event, some may turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. Substances serve as a means of escape and may temporarily relieve symptoms they experience; however, it tends to worsen their overall wellbeing and develops into full-blown addiction. In other instances, the use of substances can put a person in dangerous situations that may lead to traumatic experiences.

When drugs or alcohol are used as a method of managing symptoms of trauma, it often makes their condition worse. Symptoms of PTSD and trauma can be distressing and without healthy coping mechanisms and proper treatment, it can lead to the development of dangerous dependencies.

Dual-Diagnosis Treatment

Those who struggle with addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder benefit greatly from dual-diagnosis treatment. This form of treatment is designed to simultaneously treat both the addiction and any mental health disorders that are present. Identifying the underlying causes of addiction can help strengthen the recovery process. Using this holistic approach, mental health and addiction are treated equally, helping a person develop healthy coping mechanisms to reduce the risk of relapse following treatment. Treating addiction without addressing mental health conditions is largely unsuccessful because a person is likely to continue turning to drugs or alcohol to escape symptoms of mental health disorders. Trauma informed treatment is necessary for those struggling with both PTSD and substance abuse or addiction.

Dual-diagnosis treatment includes numerous therapies to help address the underlying reasons addiction may have developed. Following an initial discovery phase, individualized care can be provided to help a person cope with trauma and the triggers that may awaken symptoms of PTSD and other conditions.

  • Individualized therapy can help a person identify the unique experiences that contribute to the development of substance abuse and help them develop healthy methods of coping with stressors.
  • Group therapy designed to address specific mental health disorders can help an individual recover with others who readily relate to their experiences. Discovering they are not alone can help remove barriers in treatment and allows a person to both give and receive support to others in similar situations.
  • Family therapy can help loved ones better understand a person’s needs and equip them with tools to support them throughout the recovery process.
  • 12-step programs and other structured programs can provide a person with a path to follow and support from others.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment – In some cases, medications may be used to help a person cope with symptoms of PTSD and trauma so they may focus on their recovery.

When PTSD, trauma, and addiction co-exist, it is important to treat them simultaneously in order to improve the recovery experience. Mental health conditions can worsen withdrawal symptoms and may make it difficult to cope with stressors. Using behavior therapies, those who struggle with mental health disorders can develop life skills to better manage stress and deal with triggers in a healthy way. Therapy is designed to increase feelings of self-worth and help a person control the negative thoughts they may inevitably face. In some cases, exposure therapy may be beneficial to help a person face their fears in a safe environment. Developing healthy coping mechanisms to move past trauma can help strengthen feelings of confidence and self-worth.

Ongoing support and individual development can enhance the recovery experience and minimize the risk of relapse. Specialized treatment is available and recommended for those who have experienced trauma and struggle with addiction. With individualized care, those who struggle with trauma and PTSD can find it is possible to move forward and regain control.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, we are here to help. Give us a call at 888.855.6877 or send us a message below and one of our admissions counselors will do their best to get you the help you need.

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