PTSD and Addiction – What They Have in Common

After a trauma the pain can be, in a word, immense, and so it’s very easy to fall into a habit of self-medicating as a way to cope. Addictions Counselor, Valerie Belew, illuminates the topic for us today.


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition in which certain objects, experiences, or events trigger reactions similar to those experienced during a prior traumatic experience. The condition was first identified in combat soldiers, and later recognized in rape survivors, incest survivors, and those surviving national disasters. The experience of PTSD can be so intense at times, that the sufferer actually believes the original traumatic event is repeating itself.

Addiction is a brain disease in which the afflicted individual continues to use a destructive substance or participate in a destructive behavior, in spite of obvious negative consequences related to doing so. What do sufferers of PTSD have in common with addicted individuals?


Associations occur when events are seen as being related to one another. Associations may be conscience or unconscious. One example of a conscience association occurs when we associate the desire to grill hamburger meat with a fire or coal. We may also remember our own high school experience at the Junior Senior Prom, and associate a similar event with formal wear. Negative associations might occur for either of these events if we associate the consumption of red meat with the risk of cancer or heart disease, or had a bad experience with our date to the prom. In some cases our positive or negative associations can be strong enough to cause emotions and/or behavior that is not rational or appropriate to the present situation. PTSD and addiction are examples of associations that have become dysfunctional.


Unconscious associations are sometimes innate, and may protect us from sudden danger through fight or flight responses. During such times we experience increased alertness and physical strength. Other examples of unconscious associations are learned from our past experiences, such as was true in the example of Pavlov’s dogs.

Pavlov was a scientist who performed a number of experiments involving dogs. He paired one event with another a number of times, until the dogs began to associate one event with the other. In his experiments, Pavlov rung a bell before feeding the dogs, then fed them immediately afterwards. After repeating this process a number of times, he was able to cause the dogs to salivate each time the bell was rung, in anticipation of their next meal. This type of learning is known today as classical conditioning.In classical conditioning, two events that would not ordinarily be associated, become closely related to one another in the mind of an individual through the processing of learning.


In both PTSD and addiction, associations are made between seemingly unrelated stimulus events through learning, and these associations are often very difficult to eliminate. In the case of PTSD, a sufferer may become hyper alert on the 4th of July at the sound of fireworks, while his or her companions are enjoying the celebration. The sound of fireworks triggers a past combat response in the sufferer, who associates it with noise made by gunfire experienced at another time of his or her life. The cocaine addicted person may experience intense cravings for the drug, after seeing white sugar spilled on a make-up mirror laying on a table. These associations cause the same reaction the person would experience if the situation were actually the “real” thing. Such associations cause problems in recovery efforts of both PTSD sufferers, and addicted persons.


The process of Systematic Desensitization is often used to treat those suffering from PTSD. In this treatment approach, the sufferer is gradually exposed to increasingly more intense examples of stimuli resembling those experienced during the original traumatic event. The PTSD sufferer is taught relaxation techniques, and learns to use them during times of high stress related to his or her PTSD symptoms. The hope is that associations initially causing PTSD symptoms will gradually cease doing so.

Addicted persons are taught Relapse Prevention Techniques intended to help them cope with associations that might cause cravings leading to relapse. In many cases, relapse prevention includes simply avoiding the associations involved, such as the street on which the person’s drug dealer lives, or the local bar or pub. In other cases, it involves planning alternative behaviors or responses to events that cannot be avoided, such as old friends showing up at one’s home, or people using drugs or alcohol on the job.


PTSD and addiction are complex problems involving complex brain chemistry. Both are very difficult to treat, and should therefore include the help of a qualified professional. If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from either of these problems, seek help immediately, as it is unlikely the problem will cease to exist on its own. Often sufferers of PTSD use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to relieve their symptoms, only to discover later that they have only added fuel to the flame by creating an addiction, as well. Please seek help through a medical practitioner if you are experiencing either problem.

Valerie Belew holds a Masters Degree in Psychology and Counseling, and is Internationally Certified as an Addictions Counselor.  She hss directed a number of Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities as well as served as a Substance Abuse Counselor,.  Ms. Belew has completed one noval, Undercover, a story of methamphetamine addiction in Atlanta, that is presently in the revision stage.

The opinions in this post are solely those of the author. To contribute to ‘Professional Perspective’ contact Michele.




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