Trauma, Acute Stress Reaction, and Addiction
“…that was the first time I started to see how the trauma had triggered serious drinking. I wish I knew then what I know now – that the alcohol kept me numb. I was on autopilot, trying to get through by pushing down feelings that tried to surface. I can see now that it doesn’t work, but at the time, it was all I knew.”
~ Dr. Lisa M. Najavits, PhD, Recovery from Trauma, Addiction, or Both: Strategies for Finding Your Best Self
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the idea that a traumatic event in someone’s life can cause them to abuse alcohol or drugs, in a misguided attempt to cope. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” has become a familiar term.
PTSD is only one part of a debilitating psychological condition that can completely disrupt the sufferer’s life. For many, Acute Stress Reaction comes first, and if it is not addressed quickly, it sets the stage for long-term mental illness and problematic substance abuse.
What is Acute Stress Reaction?
Acute Stress Reaction, also known as Acute Stress Disorder, or informally as mental shock, is a diagnosable mental condition that develops as an emotional response to a traumatic or terrifying event. In some ways, it can be thought of the acute phase of PTSD, because that is what typically develops if ASD symptoms last for over month.
ASD does differ significantly from PTSD, primarily because it is accompanied by dissociative symptoms:
- Emotional detachment, or “numbing”
- A sense of physical detachment from one’s body
- Decreased awareness of surroundings
- Perceiving one’s environment as unreal or dreamlike
- Being unable to recall important details about the trauma
Besides the dissociation, ASD also presents with clusters of symptoms:
- Recurring nightmares
- Painful persistent memories
- Extreme or prolonged distress from external triggers
- A persistent inability to feel positive emotions such as:
- Loving feelings
- Taking extreme measures to avoid:
- Distressing memories
- Uncomfortable feelings
- Painful thoughts
- ANYTHING related to or even reminiscent of the trauma
- Difficulty concentrating
- Easily startled
- Sleep disturbances
How ASD Affects Substance Abuse
People suffering from ASD feel such heightened stress symptoms due to the unresolved trauma that they have difficulty finding a way to cope. Too often, they turn to drink or drugs to push down or quiet painful feelings or emotions. Anything to get them out of their own heads.
This is especially true with alcohol. Recent research has discovered that there is a biological connection that links severe stress to alcohol consumption. This link is even stronger among people who are either genetically or environmentally predisposed to addiction.
That drinking or drug use, in order to feel better, becomes a problem in itself.
First, there is the progression – abuse/misuse, tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Self-medicating becomes a compulsion that that must be obeyed, no matter what the consequences to every other area of their life.
Then, there is the fact that substance abuse almost always leads to risky behaviors and new trauma:
- Dangerous binge-drinking
- Unsafe sexual behaviors
- Drunk driving
- Health problems
- Relationship issues
In other words, using substances to deal with trauma and stress always backfires, because it creates even more trauma and stress, leading to more drinking and drugging. Without intervention, it becomes a self-perpetuating and self-destructive spiral.
Getting Help for Co-Occurring ASD and Addiction
When Substance Use Disorder and mental illness occur simultaneously, such a dual diagnosis can complicate recovery. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness advises that to achieve the best results, each condition should be treated as the primary illness. This reduces the chance of complications such as relapse or problematic episodes.
The best way to treat co-occurring disorders is with an approach that addresses the person’s needs on multiple levels, using several strategies. Depending on the individual, a service plan might include some combination of:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Individual psychological counseling
- Peer group therapy
- Trauma and grief processing
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
- Medication-Assisted Treatment
- Poetry Therapy
- 12-Step support groups
- Family services
- Long-term aftercare and support
If you live in the San Diego area, your best resource for evidence-based rehab and mental health treatment is Lasting Recovery. As the top outpatient dual diagnosis program in San Diego, Lasting Recovery helps you safely and successfully regain both your sobriety and your good emotional health.
To get the help you need, contact Lasting Recovery TODAY.