Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Teen PTSD and Addiction

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs in an estimated 7.8 percent of the population, per the Nebraska Department of Veteran’s Affairs. According to Psych Central, PTSD belongs to the classification of “Trauma and Stress-related Disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Most often, it follows witnessing a traumatizing event that instills fear in the affected individual. That being said, some people aren’t even directly exposed to the trauma and still develop PTSD.

Hearing a disturbing story from someone else who witnessed a trauma is enough to cause harm for sufferers. For this reason, it’s quite difficult to ascertain how or whom PTSD could affect. Oftentimes, there seems to be a link between the emotional and mental tolerance and stability of an individual. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule; some of the toughest and bravest men have gone off to war and suffered from PTSD for years to come as a result.

Many are of the belief that PTSD comes into play when a trauma occurs unexpectedly, with the illness being more of a result of the surprise or shock of it than of the trauma itself. Regardless, the exact causes and structure of PTSD are still widely unknown.

Causes of PTSD

Common predecessors to the development of PTSD are:

  • Terrorism
  • Severe accidents
  • Natural disasters: tornados, floods, hurricanes, etc.
  • Assault: sexual, physical or otherwise
  • Divorce in the family
  • Loss of a loved one

Typically, stress hormones are released following exposure to a traumatizing event. After which, they slowly decrease until the body is back to a relaxed state. This doesn’t happen in sufferers of PTSD. Instead, those same hormones stick around and keep the individual on high alert for any sign of danger. This can lead to severe anxiety, panic, and debilitating fatigue when other symptoms interfere with sleep.

Who Gets PTSD?

In short, anyone. While PTSD isn’t selective in regards to whom it might affect, certain precursors do seem to make it more probable for some. The U.S. Library of Medicine at the National Center for Biotechnology Information claims that some who have suffered through a traumatic event in their past might be more likely to develop PTSD following current or future traumas. Genetics, family structure, and even the way one processes emotions may play an active role in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. Recent science has proposed the possibility of neurological ties to PTSD as well.

People with PTSD frequently have a difficult time coping with stressful events. It is often thought that PTSD is strictly something that affects those who’ve been in combat or faced serious life-threatening harm, but the disorder affects many who are just struggling to accept normal parts of life, like the death of a loved one. PTSD doesn’t discriminate, and this is proven in the number of adolescents who’ve been diagnosed in recent years. Data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs shows that 1 to 6 percent of young males who have gone through trauma have PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder presents different risk factors for children than it does for adults.

Parents play a key role in how their children handle traumas, as do the distance between the child and the trauma as well as the severity of said trauma, per the USDVA.

What Does PTSD Look Like?

In teens, it can be hard to differentiate some behaviors that are due to PTSD symptoms from normal teenage behavior that adults expect to see. Children often express signs of PTSD in different ways than adults do, but teens mostly exhibit the same symptoms as adults. The Nation Institute of Mental Health divides the symptoms of PTSD into three distinct categories, as follows:

  • Re-experiencing symptoms: flashbacks; terrifying thoughts and nightmares
  • Avoidance: emotional numbness; loss of interest in daily activities; difficulty recalling the trauma; being plagued by anxiety, guilt or sadness; and purposefully steering clear of people, things or places that might remind them of the trauma
  • Hypervigalence: being easily rattled; feeling tension and overly alert; explosive rage; and trouble sleeping

It is important to note that teens are more likely to become aggressive and engage in impulsive behaviors than adults are when suffering from PTSD. They may also be more inclined to seek revenge if the trauma wronged them or someone they care about. The National Center for Biotechnology Information published the results of a 1995 study which declared that 34.5 percent of men who have had PTSD sometime during their lives have also struggled with drug dependence and abuse.

Addiction Meets PTSD

It isn’t uncommon for youths to self-medicate. Some find themselves with addiction problems merely trying to cope with life’s struggles, while others are battling things that are far more fierce and out of their control, such as undiagnosed mental health problems. Having PTSD can make you feel out of control – a scary feeling for anyone. You don’t have a firm grip on your emotions, and you often don’t see the world very clearly.

What begins as an occasional method of treating your PTSD symptoms on your own with a drink, a blunt, a few pills, or some other form of substance abuse can lead to addiction. You can easily become reliant upon those substances to relieve you from your PTSD pain. In turn, your body may develop a physical dependence, and that dependence will grow as your tolerance to the drugs and alcohol also grows. The end in sight isn’t pretty and often it involves jail time or death.

Addiction to drugs and/or alcohol isn’t safe for anyone, but it’s especially dangerous for the vulnerable teen. In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that young adults ages 18–24 were more likely than any other age group to have both an alcohol and drug-related disorder simultaneously. In addition, males were more likely than females to have a problem with alcohol or drugs.

While it seems like abusing alcohol or drugs helps to make you feel better, all it’s really doing is helping you feel less. You’re getting further away from the root cause of your PTSD and likewise, further from a resolution. Habitually using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate will only help to ensure you may live with PTSD forever.

The Risks of Avoiding Treatment

Both PTSD and addictions get worse over time when left untreated. Disturbed teens turn into disturbed adults. Unfortunately, many young adults are not willing to accept mental health diagnoses because of the stigma they often carry. PTSD is not something to be ashamed of. It can be effectively treated. You are not doomed to a lifetime of mental illness with this disorder.

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Time is of the essence though, and it is vital that parents step in early; once the legal age threshold is reached, there’s little parents can do to force treatment. Suicide is also a potential outcome of both untreated PTSD and addiction. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that at least 90 percent of teens who commit suicide have a mental health disorder.

When PTSD is allowed to fester, it becomes more confusing and harder to treat. If the trauma that brought on your PTSD isn’t extreme or otherwise obvious, medical professionals may have difficulty diagnosing you years down the road. Your addiction may even grow to the point that is consumes your life.

Drug and alcohol abuse will not lead you to a happy or positive place. Your health will fail, you will lose people who are important to you, and you will lose yourself, too. There is the potential for criminal behavior and the legal ramifications of such as well. CASA Columbia reported that four out of five juveniles who are arrested are intoxicated via drugs or alcohol at the time of arrest. Don’t go down that path and try to turn around later. Get help now.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, children who begin drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop a dependency and abuse problems. Don’t let a potentially temporary disorder like PTSD trigger a lifelong battle of addiction in your child.

Getting Help

If you find yourself responding in extreme ways to the actions of others, or feel fearful of situations that you normally would not be, you might be suffering from PTSD. If you have PTSD, you know just how common it is to overreact to a stimulus that makes you feel the same way a past trauma made you feel. If your son is behaving in erratic ways since a trauma was encountered in his life, it’s worth the time to investigate the problem. If he is acting out, getting into fights, showing a decline in his academics, and possibly using drugs or alcohol, you’re in the right place to find help.

At Muir Wood, a thorough evaluation is performed inclusive mostly of talk therapy. From there, a determination can be made as to whether the present addiction is a problem all on its own or a symptom of underlying PTSD. Either way, both issues are treated at the same time to ensure the optimal chance of success for the patient.

Medication, under the supervision of medical professionals, is available for detox, drug therapy and PTSD. We recognize treatments that are aligned with recommendations by the NIMH, such as exposure therapy, stress-inoculation training, and cognitive restructuring. Here, we will bring your family together; your son will connect with others just like him and participate in adventure therapies and group activities that will help him to rebuild his life. Today is the perfect day to start over and take back control. Call now.