Despite being different mental disorders, addiction and PTSD can both stem from deep-rooted memories.
By Sonia Tagliareni
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a chronic and debilitating condition that sets in after traumatic events such as natural disasters, combat, or interpersonal violence. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes an individual to crave continually and seek drugs.
In 2011, researchers from Montreal’s Douglas Hospital and McGill University explored treating substance use disorders with techniques similar to those used in treating PTSD. The experts believed that, as with PTSD treatment, they could weaken the memories associated with the addiction triggers.
In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, trauma specialist Dr. Alain Brunet explained that a substance craving was a strong memory that doctors could weaken. He added that when the brain pieces a memory together, there is a period where that memory is vulnerable. If experts interrupt the memory at the right time, they can offset even the most powerful habits. Brunet treats PTSD with propranolol, a blood pressure drug that weakens active memories. The patients wrote their disturbing memories on paper and read them aloud five times while on the drug. Brunet explained, “It brings the memory back to life inside the brain, something science can see with brain scans … Propranolol targets the memories activated while it’s in the system.”
Although this method does not make the memory disappear, it makes it less prominent. Brunet translated this approach to addiction memories. He likened these memories to those associated with PTSD. The substance users write down the driving memory that pushes them to use drugs. The goal is for propranolol to weaken the memory associated with substance use. Brunet expressed that the treatment is not meant to work in isolation and requires regular therapy sessions.
Another study from the University of New South Wales contradicts the longstanding belief that a patient should be abstinent from substances of abuse before receiving PTSD treatment. Experts feared that PTSD treatment would induce relapse in former drug users. However, the 2012 study supports the notion that exposure therapy, along with regular treatment, lessened PTSD symptoms without worsening the addiction.
Exposure therapy encourages patients to dissociate their fears, thoughts, feelings, and situations from a previous traumatic event. Therapists use two methods to achieve this goal: desensitization and flooding. Desensitization allows patients to think of very few memories and gradually build-up to the traumatic ones. Flooding, on the other hand, requires patients to recall all of their traumatic memories at the same time. Both methods can distance patients from their traumatic memories. Concurrent Treatment of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders Using Prolonged Exposure (COPE), a program used to treat PTSD and addiction, proved highly successful. The university study reinforced the idea that physicians could start PTSD treatment even if the patients were active substance users.