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PTSD: Addiction and Getting Sober 22 Dec 2017

PTSD: Addiction and Getting Sober

Many of us come into these rooms with a pretty gruesome past. For some, it could have been certain situations we found ourselves in physically, others can be struggling with emotional traumas, and others can be dealing with the fallout from incidents and accidents that occurred during their addiction. PTSD in sobriety is a very common thing, that often goes undiagnosed.

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when someone witnesses or experiences any sort of life event that shocked, horrified, frightened, or extremely disturbed them. It is probably most commonly recognized and understood among people who have fought in wars. People who have been sexually, emotionally, or physically abused, and even among people who have been part of horrific car accidents.

PTSD in sobriety is actually very common, due to the fact that many people in active addiction have been put into situations and been through experiences that they never thought would be possible. Both women and men in addiction go to extreme lengths to often satisfy the craving for their substance, that they can sometimes be willing to engage in acts that they know go against their moral spectrum, and these situations can often go spiraling out of control.

Diagnosing PTSD

Many people who go through these experiences often find that after time, much of the pain of the memories will fade. However, the diagnosis of PTSD actually occurs when:

  • Symptoms get worse over time, ranging from a month to years after incident
  • Inability to cope increases
  • Symptoms interfere with daily life and function
  • Symptoms persist despite no danger or recurrence
  • Increased feelings of distress, fear, trauma
  • Occurrence of “Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Severe anxiety

The general family of symptoms consists of four general areas of concern.

Intrusive Memories: Ranging in everything from flashbacks, to nightmares, to anxiety that re-creates the event for the person. These memories are often diagnosed as PTSD if they create a disturbance in the person’s daily life and can often be triggered by sounds, memories, certain places or situations, and even certain people.

Hyper-Emotional Responses: Can often be misunderstood from the outside, and diagnosed as other disorders, but this can result in extreme mood swings, increased anxiety and emotional outbursts, nightmares, irritability, aggression, and overreactions. Think to scenes of a soldier coming home from war and flying off the handle over small situations. This aspect can be especially difficult to cope with for people who have PTSD in sobriety.

Avoidance: When a person finds that certain situations, people, activities, or things bring up memories of the event, avoidance occurs when a person purposely distances themselves from that triggering catalyst. For example, if the person was in a car accident with a friend, their PTSD can often cause them to completely abandon that friendship as the sight of them can bring up so many painful emotions.

Negativity: Exactly as it sounds, the negativity aspect can create a dark cloud over the person’s life. It will interfere with their ability to cope with life after the incident, it can increase the feelings of anxiety, paranoia, and can often result in a state of depression that isolates them from the life they once found enjoyable.

overwhelmed man
PTSD in Sobriety

The question now is, how can someone who suffers from PTSD navigate successfully through sobriety? The answer, a solid program, a strong support network, and intensive therapy. Many people will find that simply working a 12 step program is often not enough to overcome the traumatic memories and emotional reactions that they struggle with.

For this reason, it is strongly encouraged that for people who suffer from both PTSD and a substance abuse disorder to seek medical treatment, preferably a dual diagnosis facility.

There are three main approaches to treating PTSD, which have been proven to be more successful after the person has been separated from drugs and alcohol. These are:


  • Psychotherapy: In the form of cognitive therapy, designed to diminish the negative perceptions a person has around the memories of the traumatic event. Another very helpful form of therapy for PTSD is EMDR therapy, which trains the brain to perceive these memories in a new light, under more positive circumstances, to help rewire the brain and relieve the symptoms of PTSD.
  • Medications: This can often be a blurred line for people with substance abuse issues, however, if they are in the safety of a dual diagnosis treatment facility, they will be prescribed non-addictive medications after significant testing has been completed. They will also learn how to properly manage and respect these medications to help them in the future.
  • Social Interaction: Many people who struggle with PTSD isolate themselves from other people after the event. Creating positive and compassionate group therapy environments allows people to work through these traumatic experiences with others, learn to trust again, and rely on the supportive network that other people can offer.


In Regards to the Program

Since there are so many people who are recovering from drugs and alcohol who often struggle with PTSD in sobriety, it is a very supportive community for those people who are just coming in. A 12 step program will help dramatically in the grieving process, the reality of the situation, and the strength that comes from overcoming it.

It is very uncommon that people who struggle with PTSD in sobriety cannot recover because of this. They have every opportunity for growth and change just like anyone else, given they are willing and honest in their program.

Often times, the main difficulties that these folks will face are the inability or the difficulty to find trust in the other members of the program. Especially if their previous traumatic event surrounds other people, and how far they have pushed themselves from others.

However, anyone who joins a 12 step program with the intention of recovery, even those who experience PTSD in sobriety, will find that they too can recover from both their addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as their mental and emotional trauma.

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