Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was originally considered a mental condition that only occurred in military service members and veterans, this stress disorder is now understood to occur in many people who experience an intense, often life-threatening event, such as a terrorist attack, natural disaster, severe accident like a car accident or plane crash, physical or sexual abuse, or combat. It is completely normal for many survivors of such events to experience a heightened fight-or-flight response for several days after such a traumatic event; this is called acute stress disorder. However, if this reaction persists, or if new symptoms develop and disturb daily life, it may be PTSD.
Mental health professionals use a document from the American Psychiatric Association in order to diagnose disease. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 7.7 million American adults, ages 18 and older, have developed PTSD. Roughly 8 percent of people in the United States will develop PTSD. This document, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), defines PTSD as an anxiety disorder that is triggered by exposure to:
The National Institute of Mental Health says symptoms of PTSD can appear right after the episode ends, or they can emerge months or even years later. Those symptoms can include:
We Can Treat a Substance Abuse Issue & PTSD Concurrently
Living with PTSD is not easy, and some people with the disorder turn to drugs and alcohol to make symptoms less severe. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol tend to make PTSD symptoms stronger. When the drugs wear off, people can feel more anxious and upset than they did before they drank. Some PTSD symptoms, like anger and hostility, can be amplified by the presence of drugs.
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People with PTSD might have some or all of these symptoms, but the PTSD they have might not be similar. In fact, some medical professionals believe there are specific subtypes of PTSD that can impact people. These subtypes are all considered part of the PTSD illness, but those who have these subtypes might need different treatments or therapies in order to get better.
Authors writing for Current Psychiatry suggest that there are five different PTSD subtypes:
In an overview in Psych Central, authors offer up a description of one other PTSD subtype. Here, they say some people with PTSD can experience a sense of unreality, as though the things they see and feel simply aren’t real. They might:
Some authors suggest that people with PTSD can differ from one another if their trauma has been caused by:
People who have developed PTSD are five times more likely than people without PTSD to develop a substance use disorder. A 2008 study reported that 50 percent of people living in inpatient substance abuse treatment facilities will meet the criteria for co-occurring PTSD. Another study reported that people with PTSD are reportedly 14 times more likely to struggle with addiction.
Many people who develop problems with alcohol or drugs do so because they are self-medicating PTSD symptoms; however, abusing substances will make symptoms of any mental illness, including PTSD, much worse. Additionally, abusing drugs or alcohol can increase the risk of suffering a traumatic event, like abuse or an accident, which increases the risk of developing PTSD or experiencing increased symptoms.
Veterans are one of the most studied demographics who struggle with PTSD and co-occurring drug or alcohol abuse. One study examining veterans three to four months after returning from deployment found that 27 percent abused alcohol and a significant association between how life-threatening combat was and the rate of alcohol misuse. Those who experienced more severe combat situations had 93 percent higher odds of screening positive for alcohol abuse. Among Vietnam-era veterans, 41.4 percent were found to have both a substance use disorder and, later, PTSD.
Women are another group at elevated risk for developing co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that as many as 80 percent of women entering treatment for drug abuse have a history of sexual abuse, childhood trauma, or physical assault.
People who struggle with co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse are more likely to experience other issues, including:
Understanding what type of PTSD a person has is a key part of the healing process. That’s because PTSD therapists attempt to break down a traumatic event into chunks, so they can understand it and help the person to process it. Therapists must do that analysis before they can determine the person’s PTSD type. Therefore, typing is part of the early part of the therapeutic process. It’s here when therapists are working to understand just what happened, and how the person feels about it.
With typing in hand, therapists can use talk therapy to help people heal. According to Mayo Clinic, types of therapy used in PTSD programs include:
Some PTSD therapists use all of these therapies at the same time, while others provide just one or two solutions, depending on the needs of clients.
In addition to talk therapy, a mental health provider might also use prescriptions to assist with PTSD symptoms. The Trauma Center suggests that medications used in PTSD therapy can include:
Some of these medications can be abused, and others can spark addictions. That is an issue medical teams must closely monitor as they help people with PTSD.
Life with PTSD can be incredibly difficult, but treatment can make a big difference. Discussing the issue, and taking medications as needed, can help the past to stay in the past, allowing people to have a brighter future. People with PTSD should get that help. They will be glad they did.