It’s normal to react to unpleasant or difficult experiences, but some individuals may experience lasting emotional and psychological distress from such experiences. This is known as trauma.
In some individuals, their response to trauma is severe enough that they may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cites that 8 million adults have PTSD in a given year, and even more people experience trauma.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
People with PTSD may experience prolonged or recurrent psychological distress for at least one month following the traumatic event. In other individuals, PTSD symptoms may not appear until months or years later.
Similar to flashbacks, people who have PTSD may experience disturbing dreams or spontaneous, intrusive memories of their trauma.
It may be difficult to tell if a change in a loved one’s behavior is indicative of a stress-response to a traumatic event. Certain behaviors and emotional changes can be signs of PTSD, such as:
Insomnia or restless sleep
Difficulty concentrating when disturbed by memories of trauma
Difficulty remembering certain parts of the event due to dissociative amnesia
Increased irritability or aggressiveness
Self-blame or distorted views when recalling a traumatic event
Avoidance of people, thoughts, or feelings that remind them of trauma
If someone you know is showing some of these symptoms and has experienced or witnessed trauma, they may have PTSD.
To meet the diagnostic criteria, a person must have exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation. Importantly, this does not need to mean that a person needs to have experienced the trauma in order to receive a PTSD diagnosis.
In addition, the following must also be present:
At least one symptom of intrusion, such as recurrent distressing memories of the trauma
Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with trauma, beginning after the trauma occurred
Negative changes in mood or cognition, beginning or worsening after the trauma occurred
Significant changes in arousal and reactivity associated with trauma
Symptoms must last for more than one month, and such symptoms must impair a person’s ability to function in their life. View complete diagnostic criteria for PTSD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The criteria above apply to individuals who are at least 6 years old. Diagnostic criteria differ for younger children.
Linking Trauma and Substance Use
Symptoms of PTSD can have serious effects on family, relationships, work, physical health, and mental health. We all cope in different ways, and for some people, substances are a way to manage the stressors and negative emotions that come with trauma.
The National Center for Behavior Integration (NCBI) refers to this behavior as self-medicating and says that it is a way trauma survivors attempt to regain emotional control. Unfortunately, substance abuse can cause further emotional dysregulation and worsen PTSD symptoms.
Many people with substance use disorders experience trauma. A research study found that nearly 37% of participants who had substance use disorders met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. When both disorders are present, they are considered co-occurring disorders.
For clients with a dual diagnosis, it’s important to treat symptoms of both disorders at the same time rather than delaying treatment for one disorder. Treating only PTSD could perpetuate substance use. On the other hand, treating addiction first could lead to relapse, as clients haven’t learned how to manage symptoms of their PTSD.
Many clients benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness practices, and other desensitization approaches specific to their traumas. One of the goals in treatment is to help patients to establish coping skills for PTSD that do not involve the use of dangerous substances.
Another approach that has shown to be effective in behavioral health treatment is known as trauma-informed care.
A trauma-informed care approach provides comprehensive treatment, leading to positive outcomes for individuals with PTSD and a substance use disorder. Trauma-informed care means that clinicians understand the pervasive nature of trauma and recognize the role that it plays in an individual’s substance use disorder.
This method focuses on the whole health of the person, not just on treating the symptoms of trauma. Pyramid Healthcare’s trauma-informed care provides a safe and supportive environment for clients with PTSD and addiction.