How to Deal With PTSD Triggers
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) plays a significant role in substance abuse. Often, those who suffer will self-medicate to deal with the symptoms they may experience. Learning to avoid PTSD triggers will help sufferers proactively deal with their past trauma and avoid turning to substances for relief.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a debilitating disorder brought on by the experience of a traumatic or life-threatening event. According to results from the National Comorbidity Survey, about 7 out of every 100 Americans will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives.¹ People with PTSD experience flashbacks to the initial trauma and a sensitivity to triggers that remind them of the experience. Some of the events that may lead to PTSD include:
- Combat or military exposure
- Automobile accidents
- Physical or sexual assault
- Child abuse or neglect
- Natural disasters
- Terrorist attacks
- Gunshot wounds
- Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
When you struggle with PTSD, it often feels impossible to anticipate when an experience will cause your symptoms to flare up. However, although it may appear that symptoms come out of nowhere, in most cases they are cued by factors called triggers. Internal triggers encompass the feelings, thoughts, memories, emotions, and bodily sensations that you feel or experience that can trigger the symptoms of PTSD. Internal PTSD triggers might include feelings of anxiety, frustration, vulnerability, anger, and/or sadness.
External triggers are the people, places, and situations that you might encounter throughout your day that can bring back memories of the traumatic event. External PTSD triggers might include media triggers such as TV shows, movies, and news, seeing people or traits of people that remind them of the traumatic event, or locational cues such as certain buildings or venues.
How to Deal with PTSD Triggers
The first step in dealing with triggers is to identify them. This is done by recognizing when you begin to experience PTSD symptoms. Once this list is compiled you can begin to focus on how to deal with these triggers. Although usually impractical, the best way to cope with triggers is to avoid them altogether. An example of this would be to manage your environment by avoiding certain places that trigger PTSD symptoms.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to avoid all possible triggers. Therefore, it is important to learn various ways of coping with triggers. The following are effective, healthy coping strategies for lessening the impact of triggers:
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction²
- Deep breathing²
- Physical activity
- Art therapy³
- Expressive writing
- Social support
The more coping strategies you develop, the more successful you will be in managing your triggers. And by successfully coping with PTSD triggers you will be less likely to develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol and drug use.
PTSD and Addiction
People who suffer from PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with their feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. According to a study in the journal Clinical Psychology, individuals with PTSD are between 2 and 4 times more likely to battle addiction compared to their peers who do not struggle with PTSD.⁵ Unfortunately, the use of drugs and alcohol to alleviate PTSD symptoms only provides temporary relief, and in the long run substance abuse only intensifies the negative effects and symptoms associated with PTSD.
PTSD and Substance Abuse in the Military: Statistics & Facts
Veterans and active military members who were involved in a war or exposed to combat situations consistently show high rates of PTSD. Statistics show that these individuals are often dealing with both PTSD and substance abuse:
- Veterans with a substance abuse problem are 3 to 4 times more likely suffer from PTSD.⁶
- About 1 in 10 soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with alcohol or drug use disorders upon receiving care at the VA.⁶
- About 8 out of 10 Vietnam Veterans seeking PTSD treatment also have issues with alcohol abuse.⁷
- War veterans with PTSD and alcoholism are more likely to binge drink.⁷
- Active military members exposed to combat situations are at greater risk for binge drinking.⁸
- Active military members with PTSD are more likely to develop alcohol-related problems.⁸
- More than 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse problem.⁹
- Almost 1 out of every 3 veterans seeking substance abuse treatment has PTSD.⁹
The psychological symptoms and emotional distress associated with PTSD can often exacerbate drug and alcohol abuse. Thus, there is an urgent need for the treatment of individuals suffering from PTSD and a co-occurring addiction to address both disorders. Treatment programs called dual recovery programs focus on treating both substance abuse and other mental health conditions such as PTSD. When substance abuse is significant, detox is often the first step in a detailed treatment plan. According to the National Center for PTSD, trauma-focused psychotherapies are the most highly recommended type of treatment for PTSD10.; Using various techniques such as visualizing, talking, or thinking about the traumatic memory, these treatments focus on the memory of the traumatic event in order to help you process your traumatic experience. Treatment may include a combination of medications, therapies, and treatments which may include:
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- Harvard Medical School (2007). National Comorbidity Survey.
- Kim, S.H., Schneider, S.M., Kravitz, L., Mermier, C., & Burge, M.R. (2013). Mind-body practices for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Investigative Medicine, 61(5):827-34.
- Walker, M.S., Kaimal, G., Koffmana, R., & DeGraba, T.J. (2016). Art therapy for PTSD and TBI: A senior active duty military service member’s therapeutic journey. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 49, 10-18.
- Mims, D., & Waddell, R. (2016). Animal Assisted Therapy and Trauma Survivors. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 13(5):452-7.
- McCauley, J.L., Killeen, T., Gros, D.F., Brady, K.T., & Back, S.E. (2012). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders: Advances in Assessment and Treatment. Clinical Psychology, 19(3), 283-304.
- Seal, K.H., Cohen, G., Waldrop, A., Cohen, B.E., Maguen, S., & Ren, L. (2011). Substance use disorders in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in VA healthcare, 2001-2010: Implications for screening, diagnosis and treatment. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 116(1-3), 93-101.
- National Center for PTSD. (2019). PTSD and Problems with Alcohol Use.
- Jacobson, I.G., Ryan, M.A., Hooper, T.I., Smith, T.C., Amoroso, P.J., Boyko, E.J., … & Bell, N.S. (2008). Alcohol use and alcohol-related problems before and after military combat deployment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 300(6), 663-6.)
- National Center for PTSD. (2019). PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.
- National Center for PTSD. (2019). PTSD Treatment Basics.