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Why Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Can Lead to Substance Addiction in Teenagers

April 3, 2017

Why PTSD Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Why Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Can Lead to Substance Addiction in Teenagers

In general, to properly satisfy our basic human needs it comes down to a need for simple shelter, food and water. However, our psychological needs are less tenacious at times, especially when we are confronted with an event so traumatic and terrifying we cannot easily forget or cope with the emotional devastation caused by that event.

When teenagers are exposed to traumatic events presenting life and death scenarios, they may suffer enduring, intense feelings of terror, hopelessness and overwhelming fear indicative of a serious mental disorder called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Similar to debilitating anxiety and panic disorders, PTSD is more commonly diagnosed in adolescents who have been severely neglected, physically abused and/or sexually abused by parents, guardians or relatives. Psychologists also report teens with PTSD may be involved in a horrendous natural disaster (tornadoes, floods) bad vehicle accidents or kidnappings.

Signs of PTSD in teens include:

  • Avoidance behaviors (avoiding anything that reminds them of the trauma they experienced)
  • Feelings of depersonalization. alienation and detachment from others
  • Being in a constant state of hyperarousal (jumping at the slightest noise or movement, misinterpreting reality as threatening when it is not)
  • Insomnia/nightmares/night terrors
  • Academic and peer relationship difficulties
  • Having sudden, angry, irrational outbursts for no reason
  • Physiological problems such as rapid weight gain or loss, migraines, eczema or heart palpitations
  • Suffering random "flashbacks" of the trauma (thoughts and images that cannot be "unforgotten"

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, nearly 60 percent of adolescents with PTSD develop a drug addiction or alcohol abuse problem unless they receive professional help.

Substance Addiction and Teenagers with PTSD

Turning to alcohol or drugs is a quick and commonly sought way for teens to suppress obsessive thoughts, numb feelings of anxiety and fear and stop crushing emotional pain from tormenting them each day. The self-medication hypothesis offers a viable explanation regarding why teens with PTSD are more likely to suffer substance addictions, especially when they cannot access addiction counseling and psychotherapy.

Endorphin Compensation Hypothesis

Neuroscientists studying addiction speculate that endorphin activity at the time the trauma is experienced may be responsible for teens abusing drugs and/or alcohol. Endorphins are neurotransmitters released when the body is subjected to any kind of physical stress or trauma, such as jogging several miles to being injured in a car accident. As the body's natural pain relievers, endorphins are also released during and after traumatic events to help protect the person from suffering the full extent of the physical and/or psychological pain caused by the trauma.

After the trauma is over, the brain and body remain under the influence of elevated endorphin levels (euphoria, appetite suppression, increased energy) for up to several days. It is the eventual decrease in endorphin levels and the withdrawal from their physical and psychological effects that addiction researchers suspect plays a role in why PTSD sufferers become substance addicts.

Alcohol is known to increase endorphin release, a fact offering strong substantiation for the endorphin compensation hypothesis regarding PTSD and high rates of alcoholism in teenagers. Moreover, the constant re-experiencing of the trauma through nightmares, flashbacks and
obsessive thoughts continues to activate endorphin release and eventual withdrawal from the drug-like effects of endorphins when levels subside. Once a teen with PTSD begins using alcohol
to repress unwanted thoughts and unpleasant emotions, the craving for alcohol intensifies. Addiction to alcohol occurs as the brain develops a tolerance to alcohol's psychoactive properties and its ability to maintain abnormally high amounts of acetylcholine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid. 

Treatment for Teens with PTSD and Substance Abuse Disorders

Teenagers presenting a dual diagnosis of substance addiction and PTSD at a teen treatment center are comprehensively evaluated during intake and provided with an individualized treatment program involving one or more the following:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Exposure therapy
  • Anger management/coping strategies
  • Group and individual counseling
  • Medications designed to relieve depression, anxiety and cravings for addictive substances

Exposure therapy may be helpful for teens who deliberately avoid situations or locations that remind them of the trauma they experienced. Continuing to avoid aspects of trauma only serves to maintain and enhance chronic fear and anxiety. With the support of a Teen Treatment Center therapist, young people learn to confront and successfully cope with the trauma by exposing themselves to the locations or entities associated with the trauma. By implementing exposure therapy into their recovery program, teens begin to understand that past traumas can no longer harm them and that intense emotions can be assimilated and managed without fearing a repeat of the trauma.

Teen Treatment Center offers caring, professional addiction psychologists and therapists who
can help teenagers suffering from PTSD and substance addictionregain control of their lives. Using proven counseling techniques, holistic therapies and beneficial medications, our staff members continue empowering troubled teens by strengthening their psychological health and showing them that life is indeed meaningful, joyful and full of boundless hope. If you have more questions about our treatment or believe our program could help your family, give us a call today.  (844)319-5239

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