Observing PTSD Awareness Month

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Post-traumatic stress disorder, abbreviated as PTSD, is a mental health condition that develops in response to a dangerous or frightening event. PTSD presents myriad complications; perhaps most concerning is the tendency for those with this disorder to turn to drugs and alcohol. Currently, more than 7 million Americans are living with this condition and its debilitating symptoms. This June, we join the National Alliance on Mental Illness to observe PTSD Awareness Month. During this time, we hope to spread messages of education, awareness, and recovery.

What is PTSD?

DSM-5 criteria for PTSD diagnosis includes direct exposure to a stressor, like threatened violence or death, which results in enduring issues. After the event has passed, individuals may experience intrusive thoughts, upsetting memories, nightmares, physical reactivity, and emotional distress.

Many people falsely believe that PTSD only occurs in first responders or military personnel. In reality, a wide variety of events can catalyze a post-traumatic response. These include exposure to violence, abuse (verbal, emotional, or physical), being the victim of a crime, surviving a sexual assault, or being suddenly injured in an accident. Not all causes are violent in nature. PTSD can also result from abandonment or neglect, losing a loved one, living through a natural disaster, becoming gravely ill, or going through a painful divorce. Regardless of what one’s trauma looks like, it is important to know when to seek help. 

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

No two people experience trauma the same way; it is fully individual in nature. This means that while two people may go through the exact same ordeal, they may cope with it in extremely different ways. While one may seem normal and exhibit just a few of the below symptoms, the other may find themselves unable to function in daily life.

Signs of trauma and PTSD include…

  • Overwhelming fear
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Emotional numbing
  • Confusion, irritability, and anger
  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty with decision making
  • Becoming hyperreactive (easily startled)
  • Edginess, agitation, and tension
  • Racing heartrate
  • Insomnia and nightmares
  • Aches and pains without cause
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Extreme alertness
  • Obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors
  • Becoming avoidant and withdrawn
  • A pattern of substance abuse

PTSD is a multifaceted diagnosis that requires professional intervention. It includes both psychological and physical symptoms. If you resonate with any of the above, we encourage you to contact NorthStar Transitions today.

PTSD and Addiction

You may have noticed in the list above that substance abuse is associated with PTSD. These conditions often co-occur; according to one national study, more than 46% of those with lifetime PTSD also met the criteria for a substance use disorder (SUD). Men and women with PTSD were between two and four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and drug abuse than those without a history of trauma.

Several factors could contribute to this overlap. A literature review printed in Current Psychiatry Reports offers two explanations: the shared liability model or the causal model. In the shared liability model, researchers assert that those with greater common liability would be more likely to develop both PTSD and SUD. Put simply, those who are at higher risk for one disorder are also at increased risk for the other, as they share common risk factors on both a genetic and environmental level.

Other researchers point to the causal model, which indicates that pre-existing SUD can increase the odds of a person being exposed to traumatic events. These findings are somewhat inconsistent; some work has found that SUD increases the odds of exposure to sexual assault and other trauma, while other studies have refuted these claims. However, there is strong evidence that PTSD can contribute to the development of an addiction.

Regardless of the cause, once a person has developed both of these co-occurring disorders, they influence each another. For example, studies show that individual increases in PTSD symptoms can be associated with increased in craving, while improvements in one’s PTSD symptoms are related to a decrease in substance use. It has also been proven that patients perceive a strong relationship between the symptoms of these two disorders; when one worsens, the other does, too.

Although both PTSD and SUD are individually associated with functional impairment, studies show that on average, those with both disorders have poorer treatment outcomes, additional co-occurring mental illnesses, and more functional problems (medical, financial, and social). It is critical for those who are experiencing addiction and trauma to seek professional help.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

Dual diagnosis cases require simultaneous treatment of one’s PTSD and addiction. At NorthStar Transitions, we screen each client for co-occurring conditions. Our board-certified addiction psychiatrists work directly with each person to address past trauma and the factors that contribute to their addiction.

With the proper care, it is possible to manage the symptoms of PTSD and live a full, happy life in recovery. For more information, please contact us by calling 303.558.6400.


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