The Connection between Trauma and Substance Abuse

In the days and months following two significant earthquakes in the Western Hemisphere, many groups of both residents and rescue workers have experienced great trauma and stress recently. It is natural, therefore, to be concerned for these individuals and their struggle to cope with the devastating effects of disasters such as these.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

People who experience great trauma, or who witness trauma as they try to help victims, often suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental and emotional disorders. In many cases, PTSD leads to other problems, such as substance abuse, problems with work, and problems with relationships.

When someone witnesses a disaster, their natural reactions may include fear, anger, sadness, and grief. These feelings are normal and should be expected. However, for some people, these feelings continue to get worse and are accompanied by other symptoms such as disorientation, headaches, and tunnel vision, and also change in behavior such as loss of objectivity, uncharacteristic anger, and unnecessary risk-taking.

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Studies have linked PTSD and stress to substance abuse, even if the person is being treated for the underlying disorder. For many people, there is a need to self-medicate, and they begin to take prescribed medications in excess. Other drugs or alcohol are also often used by those that suffer from the haunting feelings after a traumatic event.

Dealing with Disaster

To prevent substance abuse and other ill effects of PTSD, it is important for someone that has experienced trauma or stress to get help. Proper help, support, and counseling should be made available to victims and their families. It is becoming more widely recognized that these individuals will need professional counseling to deal with the feelings they experience after many of these kinds of devastation.

Some of the forgotten victims, however, are the rescue workers and volunteers that try to help out in times of disaster. Management techniques can greatly help these people de-stress and reduce the risk of serious disorders. Things like orientation, briefings before shifts, shorter shifts with time off, proper means to communicate, and the appropriate supplies can all help rescue workers feel more in control. Workers should be assessed for emotional problems and counseling should be available for all of these individuals as well.

Most importantly, individuals should be educated on the things they will likely experience, as well as the risks they will face. If a person knows that what they are feeling is normal and how to keep their feelings from spiraling out of control, they will be more prepared to avoid some of the negative effects of trauma.

Sources

National Child Traumic Stress Network

Stress and Substance Abuse:
A Special Report After the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

Tips for Managing and Preventing Stress
A Guide for Emergency and Disaster Response Workers

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