Last Updated on September 24, 2016 by Morris Green
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been around for as long as human beings, but we’ve only just begun to get a grasp on its true nature and effects in the past 100 years. PTSD is a dangerous anxiety disorder that occurs after a life-threatening or traumatic event. Common symptoms include trouble sleeping, jumping at small noises, distressing memories of the event, and flashbacks.
PTSD can be triggered by any perilous situation such as surviving a natural disaster, witnessing a murder, or fighting in a war. Veterans have always been at higher risk of developing PTSD. As recently as World War II, this condition was referred to as “Shell Shocked”, and later “Battle Fatigue”. Little research on the subject existed.
According to PTSD United, as much as 8 percent of the American population, 24.4 million people, suffers from PTSD at any given time. 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have PTSD.
Unfortunately, many returning soldiers are unable to get the psychological care they need. As a result, a lot of veterans struggle with drug addiction or alcoholism as a means to cope with the horrors they witnessed. Whether legal or illegal, substance abuse among veterans is a growing problem in America, one that can fly under the radar if loved ones aren’t vigilant.
Using Alcohol to Cope with PTSD
To fully comprehend the link between PTSD and drinking, a basic understanding is needed of the effects of alcohol on the brain. Upon entering the body, alcohol targets the central nervous system and, at first, acts as a stress reliever. In actuality, the levels of serotonin in the body are being lowered. This neurotransmitter, known for affecting good moods and happiness, begins to take a beating after more than a couple of drinks. As more drinks are consumed, the body’s tolerance to their effects increases and more alcohol is needed in order to get drunk.
Alcohol is one of the more commonly abused substances due to the ease with which it can be obtained. The sad thing is that many veterans succumb to alcoholism due to the inadvertent enabling of well-wishing friends and family. Several reports have emerged from veterans claiming that within a few days of their return, a multitude of invitations to go out drinking was extended to them. More often than not, the temptation of free drink after free drink proved to be a harmful catalyst on the way to alcoholism, especially if the recipient had latent PTSD symptoms.
Research has linked alcohol to spikes in feelings of anxiety as it inhibits the brain’s recovery efforts, putting people who have gone through trauma at greater risk of developing PTSD, or at the very least, a similar anxiety disorder. Vis-à-vis, someone with PTSD has a greater chance of becoming an alcoholic.
Someone with both PTSD and a substance abuse problem is more likely to have physical pains, struggle with personal relationships, and have trouble staying in school or keeping a job. Trouble sleeping and the need to “self-medicate” with alcohol are also common.
Some signs of alcoholism are needing to drink in the morning, consuming five or more drinks in a single day, and heavy drinking on four or more days of a week.
Turning to Prescription Drugs
The military’s zero tolerance drug policy has done an effective job of lowering the amount of soldiers with illegal substance addictions. Drug tests are frequent and soldiers could face a dishonorable discharge and even be prosecuted for a positive drug test. Admirable though this may be, it has proven itself a double-edged sword as the number of active duty personnel turning to prescription drug abuse is on the rise.
With the risks of illegal drugs being what they are, it’s easy to turn to sleeping pills for that needed escape. Many soldiers also begin smoking or experience heavy relapses to smoking or tobacco use.
Addictions don’t even have to start with trauma. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, combat related injuries or pains from carrying heavy equipment led to a quadrupling of pain-relief prescriptions issued by military doctors between 2001 and 2009, reaching almost 3.8 million. Women in the military have also blamed sexual assault or the threat of it for a drug addiction.
Some common addictive prescription drugs are Painkillers (OxyContin, Lortab, Vicodin), Sedatives (Lunesta, Ambien), and Benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan). The most popular reason for taking these drugs in excess is to numb pain, be it physical or mental. As with alcohol, the more often veterans use medications, the higher a tolerance they develop, and the more drugs they seek.
Illicit Drugs and Veterans
Once they return home and are no longer under the threat of combat, many veterans lose their source of prescription drugs. With nowhere else to turn, illegal drugs become the only option for those suffering badly enough. In particular, marijuana and heroin are oftentimes cheaper and easier to come by than prescribed painkillers.
Signs of a drug problem include:
- Increased anger and irritability
- Money problems
- Mood swings
- Trouble sleeping or eating
- Loss of interest in old hobbies
- Lying and stealing
- Deteriorating hygiene
- Lashing out
What to Do
If left alone for too long, a lot of suffering veterans begin to see suicide as their only escape from pain, and that’s only if they don’t accidentally overdose.
In and out of the military there exists a stigma against drug use, leading many veterans to hide their problems from those that may help them best. More to the point, it becomes increasingly difficult to nip addiction in the bud when so many veterans begin to show symptoms only after it’s too late.
Keep in mind that most people who see combat come back a different person. If you witness any symptoms of PTSD, depression, drug abuse, and/or alcohol abuse in a veteran you know, make them aware of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Veterans Crisis Line.
The best way to help veterans is to be as educated as possible on the causes and consequences of PTSD.
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