PTSD and Substance Abuse - Solutions Recovery

PTSD and Substance Abuse

PTSD and substance abuse are often closely linked. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a frightening, life-threatening, or shocking situation. The situation could be something that presented immediate danger to the person’s life, such as combat, violence, or a natural disaster, but it could also involve witnessing a similar situation, such as harm to or the death of someone else.1

According to the American Psychiatric Association, around 3.5% of Americans are diagnosed with PTSD each year, with around 1 in 11 people receiving the diagnosis at some point in their lives.2 2nd par. The most recent data from the 2018 Southern Nevada Behavioral Health Annual Report reports that 2009-2017 saw a significant increase in the number of people who presented with PTSD in hospitals in Southern Nevada.In 2009, there were 402 emergency room encounters due to PTSD, while in 2017 there were 3,718.3 A paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology indicates that people with PTSD are 2 to 4 times more likely to have a substance use disorder (SUD). And the National Center for PTSD states that more than 80% of people with PTSD have another mental health diagnosis — meaning they have co-occurring disorders, which includes SUDs.4,5

If you or someone you know are struggling with PTSD and addiction, you should be aware that help is available. This article will help you understand PTSD, offer insight on the link between trauma and substance use disorders, and explain addiction and trauma treatment. You will also learn about the importance of overcoming PTSD triggers and learn how to seek PTSD alcoholism treatment or PTSD drug treatment.

Common Symptoms of PTSD

Anyone can develop PTSD after experiencing or witnessing a trauma.1 top Symptoms can be debilitating and harm a person’s wellbeing and ability to function in everyday life. Many people who experience trauma recover from their symptoms, but if they don’t, they can have a risk of developing PTSD. They may feel stressed and anxious for long periods of time, although their symptoms can come and go.

Different factors can trigger symptoms of PTSD. It is important to learn how to cope with PTSD triggers and learn what causes PTSD triggers to help manage your symptoms.

Some of the common symptoms of PTSD include:1 symptoms and 2 symptoms

  • Re-experiencing the event through flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or distressing dreams. You might feel as though the event is actually happening to you again.
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the event. This might include staying away from people or places, or avoiding your thoughts and feelings by staying busy or actively trying not to think about it.
  • Hyperarousal and hyperreactivity. This means you constantly feel on edge, that you have to watch out for people or things that could cause you harm, or that you act out of proportion to certain situations, such as having angry outbursts or feeling suspicious of others.
  • Cognitive and mood changes. People with PTSD might have increased negative thoughts and feelings about themselves and the world, feel unable to remember certain aspects of the trauma, experience difficulty sleeping, or feel blame and guilt.

PTSD Among Veterans and First Responders

The unique nature of the work of veterans and first responders may make them more susceptible to PTSD. Witnessing horrible, life-threatening events, being exposed to combat, and seeing others suffering can all increase the risk of PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, certain additional and unique factors faced by military members can raise their chances of developing PTSD. These may include the politics of war, where the war is/was fought, and the type of enemy you face.5 This could be one of the reasons why PTSD and substance abuse in veterans so commonly co-occur.6

First responders also face unique job-related factors that make them more likely to experience psychological distress. A report in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services indicates that these issues may include job stress, irregular or long work hours, continued exposure to trauma, sleep problems, the physical demands of the job, and lack of resources.

Military veterans and first responders may encounter the stigmatization of mental health services, increasing the chances that their symptoms go unnoticed or untreated — which could lead to unnecessary psychological and physical suffering. Unfortunately, most people with PTSD don’t receive the treatment that they need to feel better.

How are Substance Abuse and PTSD Related?

People who have PTSD may self-medicate their symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and other problems with drugs or alcohol. This may be more likely if they have an untreated, undiagnosed, or undertreated disorder. The self-medication theory is the most commonly researched idea behind the link between PTSD and SUD, especially because many studies indicate that PTSD develops before the SUD and that many people with diagnosed PTSD and SUD abuse substances to manage their symptoms.11

However, there are other reasons people with PTSD may develop addictions. It could be possible that other factors influence the link between both disorders. These can include genetic, biological, and environmental factors; common neurophysiologic systems that affect bother disorders; and prior exposure to a traumatic event.4, 12

Some studies have pointed to certain personality characteristics, such as borderline personality traits, impulsive behavior, reward deficiency, and heightened stress sensitivity, as potential factors for influencing the development of co-occurring PTSD and SUD.13, 14 In addition, addiction-related phenotypes (individual behavioral traits that are influenced by genetics) could also play a role; these have been examined as possible factors in animal studies.14

Any approved medication should be taken under your doctor’s supervision and should not be changed without medical advice. However, it’s important to be aware that antidepressants themselves can have a potential risk of addiction, and it’s possible to overdose on them. Most people who are prescribed antidepressants do not misuse them, but it is a possibility — especially in people who have co-occurring disorders.15,16 It’s also theoretically possible that antidepressants can be a risk to others if diverted and misused, although there’s not much research on this topic.

Sleep medications (like zolpidem) can also be addictive, and people often become dependent on them if used for long periods of time. If you are dependent on sleep medications, you can develop withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them.17 

Treatment Options for Addiction and Trauma

Integrated treatment, co-occurring treatment, or treatment for dual diagnosis are all terms that mean the same thing. It involves treating SUD and PTSD (or other mental health disorders) simultaneously. Both disorders need to be addressed for treatment to be effective. Treating only one disorder and overlooking the other could result in one worsening the other. This is why it is crucial to combine PTSD treatment with treatment for alcoholism or addiction to other substances.18 

Integrated treatment will often include a combination of medication and behavioral treatments. The behavioral component can help you learn how to identify PTSD triggers and how to cope, while medication can help alleviate or manage your symptoms. Some of the common forms of psychotherapy used to treat PTSD include:2,9,19,20,22 Exposure therapy, where you are gradually re-exposed to traumatic feelings and memories under the guidance of a qualified therapist. You might be encouraged to remember things, write about them, and express your thoughts and feelings in different ways.

  • Group therapy, which can help you feel less isolated through hearing from and receiving support from others who have been in your shoes.
  • Different forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), such as:
    • Cognitive restructuring, which helps you change your thoughts related to the event. Together with your therapist, you’ll learn to look at your thoughts differently, which may help alleviate your distress.
    • COPE, or Concurrent Treatment of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders Using Prolonged Exposure. This structured therapy, which takes place over 12 sessions, is designed to help people set goals, cope with drug and alcohol cravings, and deal with exposure issues related to the trauma.
    • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This helps people reduce behaviors that lead to self-harm and helps them control intense emotions.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR. This may help you integrate and deal with unprocessed traumatic memories.
  • Assertive community treatment (ACT), which helps people through outreach and community-based interventions.
  • Therapeutic communities (TCs), which are long-term forms of residential treatment to help people reintegrate into the community.

Finding a Local Dual Diagnosis Treatment Center for PTSD and Addiction

If you or someone you know are struggling with co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse, treatment is available to help you deal with both conditions, regain a sense of control over your life, and improve your wellbeing. American Addiction Centers is a leading provider of integrated treatment and dual diagnosis in Nevada and nationwide. We use research-based treatments that are proven to help addiction and mental health disorders. Our compassionate staff and personalized treatment plans can help you overcome addiction and PTSD.

If you’re ready to start on the path to recovery, please call our free, confidential helpline any time of day or night. Our Treatment Advisors are standing by to assist you.


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