PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war or combat, rape, or any other violent personal assault.
While PTSD is bad enough as it is, when combined with addiction, it can be devastating. Addiction is often a result of trying to cope with difficult emotions or experiences. It’s no wonder people with PTSD often end up addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Research has shown that PTSD is a major cause of substance abuse — people suffering from PTSD are more likely to develop substance use disorders than those without the condition.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, about 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that nearly 46 percent of people with a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD also met the criteria for a substance use disorder.
If you’re suffering from PTSD and alcohol or drug abuse, you’re not alone. Here’s why PTSD is so common among addicts and alcoholics (and vice versa).
Why do PTSD and substance abuse often occur together? The answer lies in the intricate ways these two conditions interact and feed off each other.
For many people, substance use begins as a means of coping with the symptoms of PTSD. Alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behaviors can provide temporary relief from the distressing thoughts, memories, and emotions associated with trauma.
However, over time, this self-medicating behavior can lead to addiction as your brain becomes dependent on the substance or activity to feel good or function normally.
At the same time, addiction can make the symptoms of PTSD much worse, creating a vicious cycle of deteriorating mental health and substance use.
For example, substance abuse can interfere with sleep, leading to increased nightmares and insomnia – common symptoms of PTSD.
On top of that, the guilt and shame associated with addiction can compound the feelings of worthlessness, self-blame, and other cognitive distortions that often accompany PTSD.
While there are many reasons why PTSD and addiction often appear together, a handful play the largest role.
Your genes are one of the biggest factors. Having addiction in your family makes you more likely to become an addict yourself — about 50% more likely — and the same can be said for PTSD.
Studies have shown that there may be genetic links between PTSD and substance use disorders, particularly in the genes that regulate the stress response system and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.
Environmental factors also play a big role in the development of PTSD and addiction. People who have experienced trauma, particularly during childhood or adolescence, are more likely to turn to substances as a way to cope with their emotions and memories.
The adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, found a strong correlation between childhood trauma and the development of addiction later in life.
Finally, social factors, such as a lack of support and understanding from family and friends, can make PTSD and addiction worse and keep people from getting the help they need. The stigma surrounding mental health and addiction can also make it difficult for people to seek help.
When PTSD and addiction co-exist, the consequences can be devastating. Physical health issues, such as chronic pain, heart disease, and GI disorders are common symptoms of both diseases.
Emotionally, the presence of both PTSD and addiction can lead to increased feelings of hopelessness, despair, and suicidal ideation.
The constant cycle of substance use and withdrawal can make the emotional pain and distress caused by PTSD even worse, making it that much more challenging to break free from addiction.
On top of that, relationships with family and friends can become strained or even broken due to the behaviors associated with addiction and the emotional volatility caused by PTSD.
Job loss, financial instability, and legal problems are also common for people struggling with PTSD and substance use.
Given the intricate relationship between PTSD and addiction, it’s crucial to address both conditions in treatment. Focusing on one condition while ignoring the other is unlikely to lead to lasting recovery as the unaddressed issue can continue to fuel the other.
Integrated treatment approaches that address the unique needs of individuals with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders have been shown to be more effective than traditional treatment models.
These approaches not only focus on reducing symptoms of both conditions but also on improving overall functioning and quality of life.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating PTSD and addiction since each person’s experience and needs are unique. However, several evidence-based treatments have been shown to be effective in addressing both conditions.
CBT is a widely used form of psychotherapy that helps you identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors. It can be particularly helpful in addressing both PTSD symptoms and the underlying beliefs and behaviors that contribute to addiction.
PE is a specialized form of CBT that involves gradually confronting trauma-related memories and emotions in a controlled and safe environment. This can help people with PTSD process their trauma and reduce the need to rely on substances as a coping mechanism.
EMDR is an innovative therapy that uses your eye movements to help you process traumatic memories and reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions. It’s been shown to be effective in treating both PTSD and addiction.
MAT combines behavioral therapy with medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone to help you manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. MAT is often recommended when traditional methods of getting sober have failed repeatedly.
Some groups, such as Dual Recovery Anonymous (DRA), specifically focus on addressing both mental health and substance use disorders.
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Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been clinical director and CEO of a 200 plus bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.