Dual Diagnosis: PTSD And Alcohol Addiction

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The combination, or dual diagnosis, of these issues can be dangerous because they can feed off of each other, making the other worse. Using too much alcohol can make it more difficult to deal with the stress and traumatic memories. While those same memories can leave someone craving a coping mechanism, like alcohol. Often, when the effects of alcohol wear off the symptoms of PTSD are made worse.

What Is PTSD?

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health issue that can develop after someone has experienced a traumatic event. It is diagnosed if the following symptoms continue to interfere with daily life for a month or more.

The symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Re-experiencing – this can include flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares, or sad and upsetting thoughts.
  • Avoidance – avoiding people, places, or other triggers that will bring about memories of the event.
  • Arousal/reactivity – not being able to sleep because your mind is consumed by thoughts of the event, constantly being on edge or jumpy, having emotional outbursts, or being easily startled.
  • Cognition/mood – viewing yourself in a negative way, feeling excess shame or guilt, struggling to remember things, and losing interest in things that you once enjoyed.

Risk Factors Involved In The Development Of PTSD

PTSD can develop in anyone and is not a sign of weakness. Most associate PTSD with war veterans, however, this is not the only group affected. Children, teens, and anyone who has gone through sexual assault, abuse, major accident, natural disaster, and many other events can develop PTSD.

It is even possible for someone who hasn’t experienced the actual event themselves but is simply close to the person that did, like a loved one or close friend, to develop PTSD. It is also important to note that PTSD doesn’t always develop in everyone who goes through damaging events.

Dual Diagnosis-PTSD Symptoms

In the U.S., about 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetimes, according to the National Center for PTSD. There are a lot of risk factors that can increase someone’s chances of developing PTSD, many of them are not under that person’s control.

These risk factors can include:

  • living through dangerous events and traumas
  • getting hurt, physically or mentally
  • seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body
  • childhood trauma
  • feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
  • having little or no social support after the event
  • dealing with extra stress after the event, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury, or loss of a job or home
  • having a history of mental illness or substance abuse

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What Is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder, is a recurring brain disease that consists of the compulsive need to consume alcohol, lose control over intake of alcohol, or have a negative emotional state when not using alcohol. Approximately 16 million people in the U.S. suffer from alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

About 6.2 percent of adults in the U.S. (18 and older) had an alcohol abuse disorder in 2015. Some indicators that someone is suffering from alcohol addiction can include:

  • drinking more or longer than intended
  • trying, more than one to stop drinking but couldn’t
  • spending a majority of the time drinking, or being sick from withdrawal
  • experiencing cravings or a strong need or urge to drink

The Link Between PTSD And Problems With Alcohol Abuse

People who suffer from PTSD have a higher risk of developing an alcohol addiction. Binge drinking can often be a way to cope with the traumatic symptoms of PTSD. When an individual experiences a traumatic event, their brain produces endorphins, chemicals in the brain responsible for blocking pain and controlling emotions in stressful situations.

After the event has past, the body experiences an endorphin withdrawal, which is very similar to withdrawing from alcohol and other substances like opioids. Much of the time people turn to alcohol, because it is legal and easily obtained, to recreate the endorphin “rush” felt during the event. The positive effects of alcohol are brief and can leave the person wanting more.

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When this occurs, it is not uncommon for people to begin to develop a tolerance to alcohol, which can eventually lead to addiction.

On the other hand, it is also possible for excess alcohol consumption to result in situations that can cause PTSD to develop later on. Drinking problems can lead to a higher risk of going through a psychological trauma. Alcohol abuse can also make it difficult to establish closeness with others and may cause situations where more conflicts occur with people you are already close to.

Dangers Involved In PTSD And Alcohol Addiction

Using alcohol can make it more difficult to deal with the stress and anxiety brought on by PTSD, and can actually increase the severity of these symptoms. Some examples of symptoms that can worsen, as alcohol is used to numb them include: being cut off from others, anger and irritability, depression, and feeling like you are constantly “on guard” waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

Nightmares and restless sleep are common with PTSD and drinking to avoid them only treats the symptom not the root cause of the problem. However, suddenly stopping all alcohol consumption can magnify the nightmares. It can be difficult to progress in recovering from PTSD if alcohol use is not tapered off in a controlled manner.

It is common for other mental health issues to arise if both PTSD and alcohol abuse are present. Up to half of all adults who suffer from both PTSD and drinking problems also have one or more of the following:

  • panic attacks, extreme fears or worries, or compulsions (being driven to do things like checking the door locks over and over)
  • mood problems such as depression
  • attention problems or behaving in ways that harm others
  • addiction to or abuse of street or prescription drugs
  • long-term physical illness such as diabetes, heart disease, or liver disease
  • ongoing physical pain

Treatment For PTSD And Alcohol Addiction

Treatment for both PTSD and alcohol addiction requires intense support from family, mental health and medical professionals. Inpatient treatment is often the best place to find all of these support systems.

Deciding to get treatment is a huge step for those suffering from both PTSD and alcohol addiction. It is common for individuals to feel residual guilt and shame over their traumatic event that brought on their PTSD, which can make it more difficult for them to seek out help.

Once they enter a treatment center, an internal support network to encourage and cheer them on can make all the difference in the rate and quality of their recovery. Successful treatment for just one of these issues requires addressing individual needs in a manner that is specific to them.

The fact that there are two issues to handle can make these needs more detailed and complex. To properly treat each problem it is important to ensure that qualified medical professionals are included in the recovery process.

PTSD can heighten alcohol withdrawal symptoms, so medical detox is an important first step toward a full recovery. A medical detox is often completed in a treatment facility and can last a week or two depending on the severity of the addiction.

Behavioral therapies also play a major role in recovering from both PTSD and alcohol addiction. This type of therapy empowers individuals with the tools and knowledge needed to manage their symptoms while dealing with potential triggers in their everyday lives.

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