Signs and Symptoms of PTSD and Addiction
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Signs and Symptoms of PTSD and Addiction

Experiencing a trauma does not necessarily equate for that person to develop an addiction. However, there are studies that indicate that there is a connection between childhood trauma, PTSD (post-traumatic syndrome), and substance use and abuse. There are studies indicating a link between trauma and addictions, or trauma and substance abuse.

Emotional scars due to past trauma can make it difficult for an individual to cope afterward. The individual’s perspective can change, more so if the trauma is left unresolved. The person may turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism if his traumatic experience remains unsolved and left to compound. One study indicates that out of 587 individuals who suffered a form of trauma, 44% individuals are addicted to marijuana, 39% are alcoholics, 34.1% have cocaine dependence, and 6.2% individuals are addicted to opiates.

Addiction may also present itself in behavioral forms such as gambling, sex, and an eating disorder.

Trauma and the Brain

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD and AddictionDue to advances in neuroscience, we now know that the amygdala is the brain’s threat detection center. When the amygdala becomes overactive, it gets into a mode of qualifying and assessing each situation as a threat. This, in turn, makes us feel fearful, vulnerable and anxious.

The brain’s center for memory processing is the hippocampus. In an underactive mode, the hippocampus fails to consolidate and store memories in the brain’s outer layer for long-term storage. Instead, memories are placed in a loop of present-day happenings, making us remember and recall disturbing, hurtful and uncomfortable experiences.

The cortex is the part of the brain that handles executive control. Its function is interrupted when the brain is triggered by survival instincts. When in this mode, logical thinking is overruled, cognitive processing and the ability to control behavior are diminished. The urge for addicting substances or behavior becomes overpowering. Substance dependence becomes the means to cope with the overwhelming sensations brought about by past trauma.

When children are traumatized, changes in their brain are observed. The brain of young children grows and develops in such a way that it’s adaptable; allowing them (children) to adjust to situations, absorb and learn new things, and mature rapidly. When a child experiences trauma, the same plasticity of the brain becomes harmful as the child adapts to negative behavior due to fear.

There are actual physical changes in the brain of traumatized children. The shape, size, and frequency of brain connections are permanently altered. Thus, children who experienced trauma are more inclined to develop depression, anxiety and have increased susceptibility to substance abuse.

Traumas linked to Addiction

PTSD, physical abuse, rape, child abuse, bullying, emotional abuse, experiencing a natural disaster, witnessing violence -these are just some of the devastating events that can scar a person for life. As a result of the trauma they encountered, children who survived abuse are more likely to develop PTSD. The following are typed as discrete or big T traumas.

Physical and/or Emotional Abuse

A child is not supposed to experience any form of abuse. Neglect, emotional and physical abuse during childhood may well extend to adulthood, increasing the likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol to block out feelings of rage and cruel memories.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual molestation or abuse, and rape are not only traumatic, but they also open up the feeling of betrayal as the perpetrator is usually known to the victim. Most victims of sexual abuse and rape fail to seek help for fear of discrimination, and embarrassment. They rely instead on self-medicating their trauma, turning to addicting substances or behavior.

Accidents and Crime

Trauma brought about by witnessing or being the victim of an accident or crime tends to change an individual’s daily life activities. For example, a person who survived in a car accident may panic and feel lost and afraid every time they have to ride a car. A sense of helplessness may take over they that they have no option but to take alcohol or prescription drug to calm themselves down.


Grief is debilitating even for a person who has no tendency to develop trauma. Grief takes a huge toll on the emotional and mental state of a person, which could lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse. As a means of coping, such individual may resort to using prescription medications, drugs, alcohol and other behavioral addictions.

Natural Disaster

A devastating earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, or any other natural disaster can be a very traumatic event. It becomes possible for the individual to re-live that trauma through flashbacks, hallucinations or dreams, over and over again. Akin to PTSD, the traumatized individual tries to erase the memories, numb his emotions, and disassociate himself from reality by turning to drugs or alcohol. The relief is temporary, but the substance abuse will ultimately lead to dependence. However, trauma-triggered addiction treatment centers are equipped to handle such addicts.

Trauma and PTSD Differentiated

Trauma is any physical or emotional injury inflicted on a person. Psychologically, it is further defined as an overwhelming experience that is emotionally or physically shocking, distressful and agonizing.

“Big T traumas were mentioned early on. “Small t” traumas are chronic traumas that pertain to reoccurring painful experiences and situations. This encompasses, being teased or bullied, ongoing childhood neglect and parental criticism. The traumatic situation is current so it is harder to identify.

Whether it is a “big T” or a “small t” trauma, it is all about the experienced physical and emotional aftermath of an occurrence or series of occurrences.

PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder is a grave form of anxiety disorder brought about by exposure to an event or series of events that resulted in psychological trauma. Sources indicate that about 30% of individuals who experienced trauma will develop PTSD. In relation, PTSD-related addiction disorders are more apparent in women.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

Signs and symptoms of PTSD are very recognizable as they are emotional, physical, and cognitive symptoms. Personal relationships of a person with PTSD are highly and negatively impacted.

Emotional symptoms include:

  • fear, depression
  • evasion or avoidance
  • panic, anxiety
  • a feeling of anger, irritability, numbness
  • out of control

Physical symptoms include:

  • lethargic
  • unexplained sensations such as pain
  • increased libido
  • eating and sleeping disorders

Cognitive symptoms include:

  • easily distracted
  • lack of concentration
  • lapses in memory
  • difficulty in making decisions

Behavioral signs and symptoms also occur and they include eating disorders, sexual disruption, self-destructive behavior and substance abuse. Re-living or re-experiencing the trauma is also evident in PTSD cases. Nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts occur.

PTSD and addiction treatment and rehabilitation are offered at Reflections Recovery Center.

Learn More About The Link Between Trauma and Addiction