Understanding How the Past Has Influenced Your Present: PTSD, Trauma and Addiction

It’s not uncommon that many of us just don’t realize just how fragile we really are. If we put this into perspective, it’s quite natural – as human beings, we have so many thoughts, feelings, decisions to make, relationships to maintain and circumstances that affect all of these and more. How could we not possibly be affected by them?! In previous decades, it was thought that expressing the pain, sadness, anger or other negative feeling could be seen as “weak”, but we’re now realizing that holding these feelings in are what can cause us poor health, isolation and a host of other issues.

If you’re in addiction recovery (or even mental illness recovery) right now, you’ve either already or will soon be exploring how your past has affected your present. This is probably something that most of us are familiar with and that’s because the people and circumstances in our lives often affect us so deeply that it drives us to self-harm, drink, abuse drugs and engage in other risky behaviors. Traumatic events make us particularly susceptible to drug abuse later on, as the aftermath of trauma can leave us with so many devastating thoughts, memories and nightmares that it can feel as though there’s no way out.

A 2017 study conducted in Canada sought to explore the connection between trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction by asking 132 participants in outpatient clinics to complete questionnaires. Of these participants, all had a history of addiction, and 87% met the criteria for PTSD. The researchers found that severity of PTSD symptoms was directly related to severity of addiction – why would this occur?

PTSD can be extremely difficult to live with, as the symptoms often include nightmares, paranoia, depression, anxiety, irritability, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and more. When every day presents itself with a number of these symptoms at varying intensities, it can have a significant effect on a person’s family, home and work life. For many people, they just want the pain to go away – and that’s when they turn to substances.

One person shared their personal experience of living with PTSD via the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Here is an excerpt from their story: “I lost all ability to concentrate or even complete simple tasks. Normally social, I stopped trying to make friends or get involved in my community. I often felt disoriented, forgetting where or who I was.”

Self-Medication: Trying to Find a Way Out

The truth is, as humans, we’re wired to find the easiest and most efficient ways out of our problems. When we’re going through some serious mental health turmoil, we often turn to the perceived easiest and most efficient route – for many people, scheduling an appointment and attending therapy isn’t at the top of the list, especially taking into consideration finances, resources, transportation, support needed and more. Substances, on the other hand, may seem easier to obtain, easier to take and faster-acting in terms of temporary relief. Quality is more important than quantity, however, and while substances may appear to save time, they’re unfortunately prolonging the symptoms we’re trying so hard to mask.

The reality is that self-medicating can’t solve our problems, it can only add to them. The emotional upheavals experienced through PTSD and other mental health conditions need to be worked through over time and the longer we hold them inside of ourselves, tucked away never to see the light, the longer we deprive ourselves of the healing and post-traumatic growth that we deserve. So many times, we try so desperately to find a quicker way out that makes sense, but we come to find that the long, arduous road of recovery is most worth it in the end.

Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University, told Vice Magazine“Trauma is not a story about the past, it’s about how the past continues to live on in your body; that’s the core issue.”

Moving from Addiction to Recovery

While substances temporarily relieve the symptoms we experience, they cause our brain and body to become dependent on that “feel good” chemical called dopamine being released each time. We become dependent on the drug and later addicted. What many people find is that their problems never really left them – they just became distracted from those problems temporarily.

A study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review assessed the many factors that are needed for successful addiction recovery, especially when PTSD is involved. The authors talked about how much more important it’s becoming for healthcare teams to be “trauma-informed”, which means they take into consideration the amount of stress a person goes through when affected by a traumatic event.

A number of other factors were found to be very important for those in addiction recovery:

  • Focusing heavily on coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma and addiction
  • Using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an approach that helps people identity negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive, productive ones
  • Exposure therapy was found to be preferred
  • Different treatment options really help clients figure out what works best for them cost-effective wise, as well as based on their needs
  • PTSD can have a significantly impact on a person, but that doesn’t mean their life is over. Recovery is possible and while substances can’t “solve” these problems, time, therapy, healing and overall recovery can help a person make significant progress.

Cool Springs Treatment is a 12-Step based outpatient alcohol and drug rehabilitation program. Designed for individuals 18 and older, we strive for individualized, quality treatment to meet each person’s unique needs. Our outpatient program gives you just enough structure to really keep a firm grip on your recovery, while still allowing you the time to follow through with outside responsibilities such as family, school or work.

Call us today at 1-800-646-9998 to get more information on seeking the help you need.