Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complicated physiological and psychological disorder that mental health professionals are finally beginning to understand. Emotionally intense events can change the function of the brain in fundamental and harmful ways.
Self-medication through drug and alcohol abuse is a common symptom of PTSD that only makes the situation worse. New discoveries about the way this disorder functions and the role drugs play in the process are helping individuals with PTSD achieve new levels of healing and wellbeing.
How PTSD Affects the Brain
The human brain has a defense mechanism against the potential breakdowns that trauma can cause. When a person is in the midst of a traumatic experience the brain can shut out emotional processes in order to focus all energy and attention on surviving the trauma. Unfortunately, many people never have the opportunity to go back and process the accompanying emotions they shut down. The result of these pent-up emotions is this condition known as PTSD, the symptoms of which include the following:
- Panic attacks
- Emotional outbursts
- Reckless behavior
- Abuse of others
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
While the most common cause of PTSD is military combat violence, this condition affects millions of non-military people each year, including the following:
- Victims of violent crime
- People experiencing the sudden loss of a loved one
- Survivors of natural disasters (tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc)
- Victims of terrorist attacks
In some cases the symptoms of PTSD present immediately, but many people don’t start to notice the effects until weeks or months after the crisis has passed.
Self-Medication of PTSD with Depressants
One of the most common symptoms of PTSD is self-medication through drug or alcohol abuse. People with PTSD often feel intense panic or anxiety – as if they were in the midst of their trauma all over again. Central nervous system depressants slow down heart, respiratory and brain functions in a way that helps people feel a small amount of relief for a short time. People suffering from PTSD tend to self-medicate with the following substances:
- Opiates (heroin, morphine, prescription painkillers)
- Benzodiazepines (antianxiety drugs)
While the depressant qualities of these substances provide a certain amount of short-term relief, the complications caused by addiction make life significantly worse in the long run. Users also develop a tolerance for these drugs over time and require larger and more frequent doses in order to feel the desired effects.
Successful Treatment of PTSD
Just as each individual’s traumatic experience is unique, there are no two identical treatment methods for people suffering from PTSD. The most successful contemporary treatment programs take a comprehensive and holistic approach to treating all aspects of the patient’s physical and emotional health by developing a customized therapeutic regimen comprised of the following elements:
- Individual counseling of various types
- Support group gatherings
- Thorough diagnosis of all co-occurring psychological conditions
- Nutritional care and physical fitness treatment when appropriate
- Medical treatment
- Empowering education
- Opportunities to serve others
- Extensive aftercare programs
While some of these programs are offered in outpatient formats, many people experience better results by engaging in full-time, residential treatment. These programs offer patients the opportunity to focus all of their energy on healing without the distractions and challenges of daily life.