By Scott Kiloby
Studies are increasingly showing a direct link between PTSD (or psychological/emotional “trauma”) and addiction. Similar to the evidence found in those studies, the Kiloby Center often finds that clients suffering from addiction also have some history of trauma in their background.
Before discussing the three big mistakes people often make when attempting to recover from a combination of PTSD and addiction, let’s be clear about what all the terms mean.
What do we mean by “addiction?” Addiction is not limited to drug or alcohol overuse or abuse. It includes addiction to food, sex, porn, shopping, gambling, spending money, working, love, spiritual seeking, self-improvement, plastic surgery, thinking and just about any other addiction you can imagine. Not understanding how broadly addiction is truly defined can leave you unaware that you may be self-medicating trauma or PTSD.
What’s the difference between the terms PTSD and trauma? Not much really. PTSD stands for “postraumatic stress disorder.” It is a clinical diagnosis, an anxiety disorder that develops after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events. The term “posttraumatic stress disorder” was coined in the late 1970s in large part due to diagnoses of US military veterans of the Vietnam war. But PTSD is not limited to those who have a history of war-time battle. It has been diagnosed in a wide range of circumstances whether there was a physical assault or not. Physical assault PTSD can arise from physical violence, molestation, rape or any other type of physical assault. Non-physical assault PTSD can arise from pivotal events in life such as verbal abuse, watching a loved one die or suffer, rejection, non-physical bullying, abandonment and a whole host of other events. Generally speaking, if a traumatic event or events happened, and the physical, psychological and/or emotional impact was too overwhelming to process during or shortly after the event, PTSD can develop. People can live for years not knowing that they are suffering from PTSD.
The word “trauma” is often used to signify a physical injury. But “trauma” or “psychological trauma” is a more general, and perhaps less clinical term, for psychological and emotional PTSD-like symptoms that show up after a distressing event. For purposes of this article, we will treat PTSD and trauma as the same terms. A person’s mental and emotional state and coping mechanisms after a distressing event vary in severity or degree. One person may be clinically diagnosed with PTSD, while another is not, simply because the symptoms are not strong enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis in the eyes of a particular health care professional. Yet both of them are experiencing some form or degree of psychological trauma related to a distressing event. The terms don’t matter as much as the damage or degree of distress caused by the event. Not everyone who experiences a distressing event develops PTSD or trauma. But many do. And many begin to self-medicate the pain or fear, which often leads to addiction.
When a distressing event that is psychologically and emotionally overwhelming happens, the fight/flight/freeze (FFF) response of the central nervous system kicks in. The event is literally stored in the system for years, creating a habitual FFF response that shows up repeatedly in one’s life, well after the time of the event. Emotions are often stored in the body – repressed. This sometimes creates pain and contraction. Anxiety becomes an everyday problem. Threat is perceived everywhere. Addictive substances and activities often temporarily relieve the symptoms of PTSD or trauma. This is why many with trauma begin to self-medicate. But once full-blown addiction happens, a person is experiencing a potentially deadly combination, especially if the self-medicating involves substances that are repeatedly harming or destroying the body or mind. People with PTSD or trauma often feel isolated and alone in their pain. Once addiction takes hold, the isolation and aloneness can become magnified.
There are at least three big mistakes people make attempting to recover from this dangerous combination of PTSD and addiction:
1. Not seeking appropriate treatment. A vast majority of people suffering from trauma do not seek treatment. Failure to seek treatment happens for a variety of reasons. The person may not be aware that they are experiencing the effects of previous trauma. The person may be in denial about the addiction. The person may be afraid of seeking treatment, out of a lack of trust of others. After all, issues of trust and fear of other people – even health care professionals – arise quite often with trauma. Untreated PTSD or trauma often makes it very difficult for a person to stop the addiction on her own. The system longs for the addictive substance or activity as a way to cope with the fear, pain and stress. Failing to enter an appropriate treatment program often results in many years of addiction or chronic relapsing. At the extreme end, failure to seek treatment can result in serious illness or even death, due to the potentially severe consequences of untreated addiction.
2. Choosing only detox, not treatment. Many people believe they can just detox from a substance on their own or through a detox center. They choose not to go into a recovery program to treat the underlying trauma. The mantra for this way of thinking is “I can do this on my own.” However, because of the strong link between trauma and addiction, most people cannot do it on their own. The relapse rate is very high for people who choose detox only and then try to live with untreated PTSD.
3. Not finding appropriate treatment for the underlying trauma when entering an addiction treatment program. The relapse rate for people who enter addiction treatment but who do not get the appropriate treatment for their underlying trauma is also very high. Hundreds of people enter treatment each day but either fail to disclose the past trauma, fail to allow health care professionals to help them with trauma or fail to choose a treatment center that effectively treats underlying trauma. The result of this failure shows up in the national average success rate for treatment centers, which is 10 to 15%. The Kiloby Center has a much higher success rate because we focus on trauma first. Even when people think they are getting appropriate treatment for trauma, they often are not. Treatments that deal only with the mind (e.g., changing the way I think) but that do not have a deeply somatic (body) component do not work well for trauma. A large part of trauma is stored in the body.
If you are suffering from PTSD and/or addiction, contact us to find out more about how you can avoid these three big mistakes. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org