PTSD in the Parents of Addicts

Addiction impacts nearly 1 in 10 Americas, meaning that 25% of Americans likely know or love an addict. While addiction is deeply harmful to the physical and psychological health of the addict, it also impacts their loved ones, especially parents, who must cope with stressful and often traumatic occurrences because of drug and alcohol abuse. The result is trauma reactions including PTSD in many parents of addicts, who have managed overdoses, accidents, long-term stress, anger, grief, and loss. At the same time, many parents are unaware that they have PTSD and never seek out treatment or help.

This can result in negative consequences for the entire family, including an increased risk of addiction for one or both of the parents. Persons suffering from PTSD often greatly benefit from treatment, but recognizing the problem is often a first step.

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is defined as a psychiatric disorder occurring when people have lived with or been exposed to traumatic events. These can include first-hand trauma such as witnessing an accident or an overdose, long-term exposure to traumatic events, or even indirect exposure such as learning about a traumatic event or repeatedly hearing about trauma.

While the common opinion of PTSD is that it primarily effects war veterans, this is not the case. PTSD affects 3.5% of all U.S. adults, or a slightly lower percentage of the population than addiction. PTSD then reflects itself in intense and disturbing thoughts, reliving traumatic events, feelings of detachment or estrangement and isolation, avoidance, depression, mood swings, anger, and strong negative reactions to ordinary events.

There are many factors that increase the likelihood of PTSD such as depression, an existing anxiety disorder, or consistent long-term exposure and sensitization to instances of fear. However, even with all of these symptoms in place, PTSD patients don’t typically display symptoms for months or even years after exposure. For example, in a study checking for PTSD in battle-injured soldiers, only 4.2% of eventual diagnosed soldiers displayed symptoms of PTSD at one month after exposure, while 78% showed symptoms of PTSD after 7 months. This means that if you or a loved one is exposed to traumatic events which cause PTSD, problems will build up over time until they become a diagnosable instance of PTSD.

How are the Parents of Addicts Exposed to PTSD?

When most people think of addiction-related PTSD they think of addicts themselves, who may overdoses, suffer increased risk of violent crime and rape, increased risk of accidents, and an increased rate or self-harm. But, parents and close family members are exposed to those things at the same time.

PTSD happens through exposure to traumatic events, which are then relived, causing increasing stress and an inability to cope with anything. Here, parents are exposed through physical circumstances as well as emotional loss and hardship.

Physical Trauma – Physical trauma typically involves actual physical shock and hardship. For example, a parent walks in on their child having an overdose. They call an ambulance and their child ends up being okay. The trauma of a near life-ending event for their loved one can cause PTSD. This applies to any number of circumstances ranging from accidents (especially if parents are involved) to simple exposure to shocking or traumatic events. At the least, watching a loved one expose themselves to hurt, putting themselves in danger, and consistently making highly stressful decisions causes trauma, which can result in PTSD.

Emotional Trauma – Emotional trauma happens in relationships where one member is addicted because the addicted person becomes emotionally unavailable, changes their personality, and often shows little or no return of affection. A parent may be completely emotionally neglected. Their child may manipulate, lie, or steal from them. They may find themselves in an enabling relationship and have to cope with that.

The parents of addicts are very frequently exposed to trauma in that people they care about, love, and take care of are putting themselves at risk. This can cause both first-hand and secondary trauma, which can and does result in PTSD.

The Ongoing Impacts of PTSD

Most mental illnesses take time to become problematic, and this typically holds true with PTSD. Adults who are exposed to traumatic events will experience a slow onset of symptoms and problems, meaning that they are unaware of how stressful an event likely is shortly after it happens. This results in a lack of treatment or therapy, allowing problems to worsen. PTSD does worsen, typically developing from trauma exposure into recurrent flashbacks and inability to process trauma, thanks in part to a cortisol reaction and overdevelopment of the amygdala. The results can be severe enough to interfere with everyday life and an individual’s ability to work, socialize, or even leave the home.

Re-Experiencing – All PTSD victims re-experience trauma:

  • Flashbacks which can last for minutes or days
  • Nightmares
  • Stress reactions to loud noises, objects, or situations
  • Physical reactions to flashbacks

Avoidance – Avoidance symptoms occur in nearly all instances of PTSD:

  • Detachment or isolation from others
  • Avoiding anything that reminds the individual of the trauma
  • Memory problems/forgetfulness
  • Emotional blunting
  • Depression (Avoiding activities and hobbies, hopelessness, social isolation)
  • Difficulty concentrating

Hyperarousal/Hypervigilance – Hypervigilance is one of the primary symptoms of PTSD:

  • Stress reactions to events
  • Easily startled/easily
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability or anger
  • Self-destructiveness or recklessness
  • Sleep issues or insomnia
  • Guilt or shame
  • Hallucinations (Audio or visual)

Over time, these symptoms can worsen to cause significant impairment in social, romantic, family, and work lives of those affected. Persons with PTSD also have a higher risk of developing complications including physical health side effects such as obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, stress, and heart problems. They also run an increased risk of developing mental disorders, anxiety, and using drugs or alcohol to cope with PTSD, resulting in addiction. 

Treating Addiction-Related PTSD in Parents and Family Members

While PTSD affects millions of Americans it is a treatable disorder. Individuals who suffer highly traumatic experiences can go on to lead perfectly normal and perfectly happy lives. If you or a loved one is possibly suffering PTSD after exposure to trauma because of a child’s addiction, there is help. Here, individuals can seek out therapy on their own to receive comprehensive support for PTSD, underlying symptoms and causes, and complications. Many rehabilitation centers now also offer family therapy, designed to tackle the side-effects of exposure to addiction. Here, individuals receive treatment alongside their children, interact with their children in therapeutic settings, and work to overcome the problems caused by addiction.

Most parents of addicts will experience at least some trauma, even if it doesn’t develop into PTSD. If your child is using and addicted, you should seek out therapy, either through a private psychologist or counselor or through your child’s rehabilitation center. Contact South Coast Counselling at 1-844-330-0096 and find the help you need or help someone who is addicted to finding the help they need.

As Jamie Lee Curtis said, “The greatest gift to give to the people you love the most is your recovery.” Remember, recovery applies to both the addict and the loved ones of the addict.