PTSD & Addiction: Finding Your Way Out
There’s a high correlation between substance abuse and many mental illnesses. What begins as a coping mechanism to calm our inner demons transforms into a demon of its own. Comprehensive treatment for substance abuse should include mental health assessment and support—and vice versa.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, first recognized and diagnosed in veterans, is a condition that people from many backgrounds live with. Survivors of childhood abuse, car accidents, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other traumas can all develop PTSD. Whether consciously or unconsciously, these individuals often turn to controlled or uncontrolled substances to manage their symptoms: visual and emotional flashbacks, hypervigilance, insomnia, and more.
Of course, alcohol and other drugs are only a temporary fix, if that. Facing trauma head-on through intensive therapy and admitting the need for psychiatric support can be incredibly difficult. And in many settings, clinicians will focus on fixing one problem at a time, rather than the holistic sum of the chaos caused by addiction-compounded PTSD.
How can PTSD patients dealing with addictive tendencies move beyond the feeling of being stuck? What breakthrough treatments can provide the lifeline you desperately need? In addition to standard therapeutic and medication-based care, current research is uncovering a bevy of complementary solutions:
- Therapy, ESA, or Service Dogs. Nonjudgmental emotional support is key to recovery. Dogs have shown demonstrable assistance to those living with PTSD and substance abuse issues, speeding recovery and leading to better long-term outcomes. Rover.com is a wonderful resource for community members to connect with owners and find opportunities to spend more time with dogs.
- EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a remarkably effective treatment for trauma that can also reduce substance abuse. The therapy, originating in the 1980s, allows a patient’s intense emotional state to be unwound from the associated painful memories, so that they can remain calm while reflecting on trauma.
- Yoga. Yoga practice decreases cerebral blood flow to the amygdala (the brain’s alarm center), and boosts GABA, a calm-promoting chemical associated with decreased risk of depression and anxiety. It also releases tension in the psoas, “otherwise known as the fight-or-flight muscle,” according to Donna Nakazawa in her book Childhood Disrupted.
Clinicians across the country are incorporating these treatments into holistic, whole-person approaches that target co-existing conditions and help survivors emerge into new, fulfilling lives. Healthy therapeutic relationships and pharmaceutical interventions form the cornerstone of most treatment protocols, but other sources of calming and grounding allow patients to access their inner reserves of strength in untold ways.
For instance, a service dog can be trained to lick their owner’s face during a flashback event, bringing them back to the present moment. High-need patients can seek out a full-time service animal, while others may look for therapy dogs in hospital settings, volunteer at a shelter, or become a part-time pet-sitter.
Combining multiple approaches can lead to the greatest impact. Several sessions of EMDR can reduce the emotional resonance of a trauma event, therefore curbing alcohol dependence. Regular yoga helps patients connect to their bodies, reduce stress levels, and establish a beneficial routine. Finally, animals offer companionship and unconditional love, upending decades of negative conditioning with positive regard and genuine care.
Written by Nat Smith, Rover.com community member. Rover is the nation’s largest network of 5-star pet sitters and dog walkers.
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