The Inability to Cope and its Link to Addiction
When we experience an event that frightens, shocks, horrifies or leaves us feeling helpless, we may become traumatised. This is a natural and common response that can happen to anyone, and it’s important to receive effective help and support in order to help you move forward with your life and cope with these emotions in a healthy manner.
If you do not receive the correct support after a traumatic event and instead attempt to numb your emotions and memories with addictive substances such as drugs or alcohol, you are at higher risk of developing an addiction due to this unhealthy coping mechanism.
What is PTSD?
A common response to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that can have a severely detrimental effect on a sufferer’s daily life and ability to function.
PTSD can cause both physical and mental symptoms, and many people are thought to live with this disorder without receiving a formal diagnosis. It can be caused by a number of factors including physical or sexual assault, being involved in or witnessing a serious accident, surviving a terrorist attack or having a difficult childbirth experience.
It is possible to develop PTSD even if you did not experience the event first-hand, as many people have been diagnosed with this disorder after hearing about traumatic events from those who witnessed them.
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD, but it is estimated that this disorder affects approximately 30% of people who have gone through trauma. It can develop immediately after the traumatic event or in the weeks, months or years afterwards.
What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?
Every one exhibits the symptoms of PTSD differently, but the majority of people will experience symptoms that fall into three main categories: re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal.
Re-experiencing involves flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares relating to the traumatic event. The individual may frequently re-live the experience and wonder whether they could have prevented it, which can stir up feelings of guilt and shame.
Avoidance is when the individual attempts to steer clear of any reminders of the traumatic event. This may involve detaching from people who remind them of the experience, distracting themselves with activities or attempting to numb their feelings and emotions with an addictive substance such as drugs or alcohol.
Hyperarousal is when the individual is in a constant or near-constant state of anxiety and self-protection. They may jump at loud noises or become distressed easily.
Common symptoms of PTSD:
- Insomnia and frequent nightmares
- Intense and vivid flashbacks to the traumatic event
- Being triggered by any reminders and exhibiting a physical and/or mental response
- Frequent intrusive thoughts
- Being on high alert for the majority of the time, easily startled
- Difficulty concentrating on tasks and activities
- Becoming emotional, angry and upset for seemingly small reasons
- Frequent panic attacks
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Irritability and anger, often for no apparent reason
- A racing heartbeat, with or without heart palpitations
- Experiencing physical symptoms such as nausea, trembling and excessive perspiration
If you believe that you are suffering from PTSD after experiencing, witnessing or hearing about a traumatic event, it is important that you seek help from a qualified and experienced counsellor. If left untreated, PTSD can lead to a number of problems including a higher risk of developing a substance addiction as well as an increased rate of self-harm and suicide.
It has been theorised that an individual suffering from trauma and/or PTSD who finds it difficult to cope with the difficult emotions and memories that occur alongside this disorder as well as the symptoms of the disorder themselves may turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication as opposed to simply seeking pleasure.
These individuals may not be aware of healthy coping techniques and are often isolated from people who may be able to help them. As a result, they are at a higher risk of developing a dependency due to the addictive nature of these substances.
When they experience an uncomfortable emotion such as rage, guilt or shame, or suffer from a vivid and intrusive flashback to a traumatic event, these individuals may not have the tools and knowledge required to respond to this situation in a healthy manner and instead will turn to alcohol or drugs such as heroin in order to cope at the moment.
It is important to note that this method is not effective in the long term as it does not address the root cause of the problem and merely masks the physical and mental side effects to an extent. Over time, certain substances can cause physical changes in the brain and make the symptoms of PTSD and trauma more apparent.
What are some healthy ways to cope with difficult memories and emotions?
While it can be difficult to recover from a traumatic event, it is not impossible. No matter how long ago the experience occurred, there are a number of techniques that you can employ right now which can help to ease your symptoms and allow you to move forward with your life.
Speak to a therapist
The most effective way to cope with trauma along with the physical and mental symptoms that come with it is to speak to a trained therapist who has experience in managing trauma. This will allow you to express your feelings and emotions in a safe space while learning techniques to manage these feelings throughout your lifetime.
Join a support group
Speaking to other people with similar experiences to you can go a long way in reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness, and can help you to realise that you are not alone in your struggles. Many towns and cities will have a least one dedicated support group for people struggling with trauma and will allow you to connect with others and share healthy tips for managing your physical and mental symptoms.
Get regular exercise
Exercise is an extremely effective way to release endorphins and get rid of adrenaline, two things that can help you to feel calmer and more in control throughout your day. It’s recommended that you aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day and this can be through brisk walking, gym workouts, running, swimming – anything that gets your body moving and your heart pumping. Instead of reaching for an alcoholic drink or some form of illicit substance, try lacing up your running shoes and getting some healthy exercise.
Practise mindfulness techniques
Small and effective mindfulness techniques can be extremely effective at managing difficult emotions and memories at the moment and can help you come back to the present moment and stay grounded instead of reliving a traumatic experience. It’s recommended that you try meditation, breathing exercises and sensory techniques to calm your mind and body and help you feel connected to the present moment on a regular basis.
Keep a journal
Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be extremely therapeutic, and many people find great relief in putting pen to paper and getting their emotions out. A journal can be a safe space in which to explore your innermost thoughts and make sense of your feelings and can be a highly effective and healthy coping technique when dealing with difficult and distressing emotions brought on by trauma and PTSD.
Avoid addictive substances
Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol may seem like a tempting solution for numbing your painful memories and emotions, but ultimately it will only make things worse in the long term. Relying on addictive substances for a quick emotional fix can quickly spiral into an addiction which can have a devastating impact on your relationships, finances and other aspects of your life. Instead, try avoiding drugs and alcohol and focus instead on healing from your experience and moving forward with your life in a healthy manner.
What treatments are available for people who self-medicate with addictive substances?
When treating individuals who have a tendency to self-medicate with addictive substances, it can be highly effective to teach them healthy coping techniques and ways to manage and control their emotions without the use of drugs and alcohol.
As a result, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a useful tool for people dealing with trauma and PTSD. This form of talking therapy explores the deep-rooted beliefs that patients have about themselves and the world, challenging negative mindsets and encouraging the use of mindfulness techniques.
Patients are taught to take a step back before they react to emotions and experiences, allowing them to pause and make healthier decisions during a stressful time.
CBT has been proven to be an effective form of treatment for addiction and can also go a long way in assisting patients in coping with distressing emotions and memories caused by trauma or PTSD.