I will admit that I am more than a little shocked. I assumed my chat about the amygdala would bore you all to tears but it was my most viewed and most shared post ever.
Since that post seemed to really help people and I have been asked for more information on this topic, I want to share with you how the amygdala, trauma and addictions all work together in a way that is unique when compared to the regular (non-trauma) population. Considering that roughly 50% of all persons with PTSD develop an addiction (or two or three…), this is important to me.
If you haven’t read the post on the amygdala, I would strongly suggest you read it before continuing here as this will all make little sense to you without the back story.
Remember how we talked about how the “fear switch” is left on almost all the time with persons with PTSD and how every time the thinking brain asks “Am I safe?”, the PTSD brain sends an anxiety prompting signal of “I’m not sure” back?
Want to take a wild guess as to what can turn that switch off?
ADDICTIONS!!! Alcohol, sex, gambling, food, drugs, shopping and any other addiction you can think of. They can turn that switch off and keep it off for as long as you are under the influence.
Lets use alcohol as the example for today to make it easier to follow along but you can replace the word alcohol with any other addiction and it works the same way.
So here is how it works.
The PTSD brain is humming along at sonic speed making you jump at every noise, feel edgy, anxious and constantly in fear. Seriously not a nice place to be. Then you have a good strong drink and suddenly? The amygdala relaxes. “Am I safe?” says the thinking brain. The amygdala replies with “Who cares?” so you relax. The amygdala remembers this and likes it. Who can blame it? No one wants to work overtime every single day and night right?
So the next time the amygdala is feeling overworked again, the thinking brain says “Am I safe?” and the amygdala responds with “I’m not sure… but a drink would help.” So you go and get that drink and it does work. That amygdala is one happy little relaxed slacker now!
This all sounds just great right? Like I have found the cure for PTSD?
I’m smart but I’m not THAT smart. 😉
So what’s the trouble with having that drink to calm yourself down? Well… the amygdala is only happy with that one drink for a short time. It quickly needs two for the same effect. Then it needs three and the upswing is far faster than the general population. I literally went from being a non drinker to an alcoholic in about 2 weeks, then had to start adding other addictions and couldn’t quit for YEARS. It is that quick and that scary.
So finally the addict gives up their addiction.
I’ll tell you something about most addicts that you might not know. After about 2-4 weeks of absolute misery, they get happy. Not just happy but almost euphoric. Life is good! Why did they ever drink to begin with? Everything is beautiful and there are kittens and rainbows everywhere.
The person with PTSD is now sober too but that misery never stops. We feel worse and worse. Sure we are happy to no longer be addicts but we are so incredibly miserable. We’d like to take that rainbow and strangle our sober pals with it. OUR amygdala is now wondering what the heck you are doing? Are you crazy? Mine seemed to say “Come on my friend!! Throw a little tequila on me would ya?” It was loud. It still is. When I am stressed out? It screams.
For the record? With the exception of one drink in 2013, I have been sober now since 1998. I still regret that one drink though. It has turned my cravings back on full force and it takes a LONG time to reset that. I will do it though. I’ve done it before and I can do it again.
If you have PTSD and struggle with an addiction? Forgive yourself. You are just trying to cope and this is the way you found to do it. You are not alone.
Now you know why it works though and you know you need to stop. There is help out there but when you decide to quit, bump up your supports as best as you can. Healthy friends and family, therapy, support groups, 12 step programs if you feel they can work for you. Reach out in many directions. You will need the extra help.
In a future blog I will discuss some healthy ways to calm that amygdala down. Stay tuned and stay sober!