Commonly Co-Occurring: Post-Traumatic Stress and Substance Abuse

PTSD and Substance Abuse

It’s not uncommon for people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as using drugs or alcohol, to self-medicate symptoms. However, prolonged drug or alcohol use can result in a substance use disorder, which is why PTSD and addiction often go hand in hand.

These co-occurring disorders can exacerbate each other, creating a never-ending cycle that’s difficult to break. Learn more about the relationship between PTSD and addiction and how treatment can help.

Understanding PTSD

PTSD is caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as military combat, abuse or a car accident. It can result in various symptoms, including:

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Experiencing depression, anxiety or agitation
  • Feeling numb
  • Avoiding certain places, people or situations

Although many people who experience traumatic events don’t develop PTSD, an estimated 5% of U.S. adults struggle with this condition every year.

Prevalence of Co-Occurring PTSD and Addiction

Substance abuse commonly co-occurs with mental health disorders, including PTSD, depression and anxiety. Research published by the National Library of Medicine suggests 40% of individuals diagnosed with PTSD are also diagnosed with a co-occurring substance use disorder. These disorders often occur at the same time and cause similar changes in brain chemistry. Many times, the same trauma that caused PTSD can also cause a substance use disorder.

After a traumatic experience, the brain produces fewer endorphins, the chemical responsible for boosting happiness and alleviating pain or stress. This can cause individuals to turn to certain drugs or alcohol due to their mood-enhancing effects and ability to increase endorphin levels. The drugs most commonly abused by people with PTSD include:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Prescription painkillers

How Addiction and PTSD Affect Each Other

The self-medication theory is the most popular explanation for the common co-occurrence of substance abuse and PTSD. The mindset behind PTSD drug abuse is that these substances will prevent or reduce the emotional pain, anxiety, fear and shame caused by PTSD. Although substances can provide temporary relief, they have many long-lasting negative side effects that outweigh any benefits.

Prolonged drug abuse can result in a physical and emotional dependency on the drug, creating the false perception that you won’t be able to feel normal or happy without taking it. Substance abuse can also make it more difficult to concentrate, sleep restfully and cope with traumatic memories or external stressors in a healthy manner, encouraging you to take more of the substance to escape unpleasant situations. Additionally, it can exacerbate many PTSD symptoms, including:

  • Emotional numbing
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Anger or irritability
  • Hypervigilance

Research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also shows people with substance abuse issues are at a heightened risk of experiencing traumatic events, which creates a dangerous cycle. For example, people who’ve experienced trauma are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, which can produce more traumatic events, resulting in increased substance use.

This cycle can be challenging to break and can create major problems in everyday life, including relationship issues and poor work or school performance. These combined factors can prolong the healing process, making it even more difficult to process and move on from trauma.

Individuals with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders are also more likely to develop additional psychological problems. Many traumatized individuals struggle with anxiety disorders, mood disorders or disruptive behavior disorders, including ADHD and antisocial personality disorder. This can make it harder to overcome substance abuse.

Signs of Drug Abuse

If you’re worried a friend or family member may be struggling with their mental health and abusing drugs as a form of self-medication, there are several signs to look for, including:

  • Changes in spending habits
  • Noticeable mood swings or behavior changes
  • Isolation from loved ones
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Decreased appetite or weight loss
  • Lack of motivation
  • Financial issues from buying drugs
  • Bloodshot eyes or skin tone changes
  • Getting argumentative or defensive when confronted about their substance use

Integrated Treatment Approaches for Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and PTSD

Research suggests patients seeking PTSD treatment are 14 times more likely to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder than patients without PTSD. Since addiction and PTSD symptoms can overlap and influence each other, using an integrated treatment approach that addresses both conditions simultaneously is the most effective way to help individuals heal and move on.

Trauma-focused psychotherapy is one of the most beneficial treatment methods. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to help those with PTSD process and cope with painful memories. CBT focuses on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns to help you respond to unpleasant or stressful situations in a healthier way. Many drug rehab centers incorporate CBT into treatment plans for those diagnosed with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders.

Medications may also be prescribed alongside psychotherapy to reduce mental health symptoms, drug cravings or withdrawal symptoms, depending on the severity of an individual’s condition. Reducing these physical symptoms can allow you to concentrate more fully on the psychological aspect of your co-occurring disorders and determine how they affect each other.

Holistic therapies, such as physical exercise, can also help treat co-occurring PTSD and addiction. Physical activity releases endorphins, which can boost your mood and soothe unpleasant symptoms such as depression, anxiety, anger and irritation. Music and art therapy are also common holistic therapies offered at treatment centers. These therapies can help you develop healthier coping skills to use when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, reducing the risk of relapse after treatment.

Seek Professional Help Today

Dealing with PTSD or addiction on its own is already difficult. When the disorders co-occur, healing without guidance or support can feel nearly impossible. This is why specialized care that treats these conditions simultaneously and helps you understand how they affect each other is crucial to recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or PTSD, Restore Mental Health is here to help. Our dual-diagnosis treatment program can help you successfully process your trauma and addiction and develop healthier coping skills to sustain recovery. Contact us today to speak with an admissions specialist and get the help you need.