PTSD and substance abuse are strongly linked, with up to 50% of those seeking substance abuse treatment meeting the criteria for lifetime PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly abbreviated to PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that sometimes develops after someone witnesses or experiences a traumatic event.
Although PTSD is often associated with combat veterans, this condition can strike people from all demographics. Research suggests that one in eleven people in the United States will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at some stage in life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by intense and disturbing thoughts that persist long after the event. The symptoms of PTSD can be so severe that many people consider engaging with treatment.
PTSD often co-occurs with alcohol abuse or drug abuse in response to serious trauma – what constitutes trauma will vary widely. Getting an accurate dual diagnosis is key to successful treatment leading to sustained sobriety.
Dual Diagnosis: PTSD and Substance Abuse
PTSD brings about changes to brain chemistry in a similar way to the sustained abuse of addictive substances. Indeed, the same trauma that brought on the symptoms of PTSD can also trigger abusive patterns of substance use.
Sometimes, it is challenging to recognize co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse in a loved one. This is known as co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis.
Many people struggling to cope with the symptoms that manifest in the aftermath of a traumatic event turn to drink or drugs as a temporary coping mechanism. As with all forms of self-medication, though, this does not address the root cause and is liable to inflame both conditions.
If you notice a loved one who has experienced a traumatic event becoming more socially withdrawn or exhibiting signs of intoxication, they could be grappling with a PTSD and substance abuse dual diagnosis.
Following a traumatic event, the production of endorphins decreases. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain associated with mood. For those with post-traumatic stress disorder, using alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs will increase endorphin levels in the brain, compensating for the lack of this feel-good chemical.
Although self-medicating PTSD symptoms may fleetingly address the chemical brain imbalance, dependence and addiction will likely develop with sustained use. Drink or drugs may start to become a coping mechanism for all negative feelings like irritability, anxiety, or depression, further deepening a vicious cycle.
What is the Relationship Between PTSD and Substance Abuse?
Substance abuse most commonly co-occurs with the following mental health disorders:
- Major depressive disorder
- Anxiety disorder
Research shows that those seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder are up to 14 times more likely to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder.
For many people abusing drugs in response to the symptoms of PTSD, the aim is simple: to avoid or mitigate those symptoms.
The same data shows that those with PTSD and a co-occurring substance use disorder are more likely to abuse alcohol than illicit drugs.
Other research indicates that veterans and service members demonstrating patterns of heavy drinking are more likely to also suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Among war veterans diagnosed with PTSD, those who also drink alcohol often engage in binge drinking.
Can Substance Abuse Make PTSD Worse?
Over time, the prolonged use of alcohol, prescription medications, or addictive drugs rewires the neurocircuitry in your brain. When dependence sets in, you will need the substance just to feel normal.
If you feel you might be self-medicating the symptoms of PTSD with substances, not only will this do nothing to effectively treat the issue, it could even inflame the symptoms in time. Beyond this, you could also develop a substance use disorder and require dual diagnosis treatment if you allow both issues to continue unchecked.
PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans
According to the VA (US Department of Veteran Affairs), veterans are among the highest risk groups for both addiction and PTSD.
Among veterans who engage with treatment for substance use disorder, many are also diagnosed with PTSD. Service members deployed to combat zones are at heightened risk of later developing PTSD.
Research suggests an association between PTSD and veterans who experienced sexual abuse or sexual trauma during their military service. The VA reports that around 1 in 5 female veterans have been diagnosed with military sexual trauma.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs also reports that:
- Nearly 1 in 3 veterans seeking treatment for substance use disorder also has PTSD
- More than 2 in 10 veterans with PTSD have a co-occurring substance use disorder
- War veterans are more prone to binge drinking
- 1 in 10 veterans returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder
Many veterans with PTSD are prescribed painkillers, anxiety medications, and sedatives. Unfortunately, benzodiazepines and opioids are both highly addictive and only suitable for short-term use.
Treatment of PTSD and Substance Abuse Comorbidity
Every case of dual diagnosis is different. As such, the most effective treatment will be highly personalized. We can help you or your loved ones here at The District.
An accurate diagnosis is vital to the creation of an individualized treatment plan.
Treatment will invariably start with drug detox or alcohol detox. This allows you to first deal with the physical aspect of addiction, purging your body of toxins and toxic metabolites from substances. In the case of severe alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, a supervised detox in a medical detox center is the safest and most comfortable option.
From here, you will be ready to engage in the simultaneous treatment of both conditions. Whether you need inpatient or outpatient treatment, behavioral therapies are central to the treatment of both addiction and mental health conditions. Through psychotherapy sessions, you’ll explore the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviors. You will also learn to identify what triggers you to use substances and create healthier coping strategies with the help of your therapist.
The following forms of psychotherapy can all be beneficial for co-occurring addiction and PTSD:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Exposure therapy
- Family therapy
Beyond this, counseling and holistic therapies are useful for a whole-body approach.
Stop self-medicating today and reclaim your life from the dual diagnosis of PTSD and substance use disorder. Call us today at 844.437.9413 to get started.