PTSD and Addiction

ptsd and addiction

This content has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified addiction therapist and a board-certified physician.

This content has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified addiction therapist and a board-certified physician.

Table of Contents

June is recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month.

Frequently, the comprehensive understanding and acknowledgment of PTSD are inadequately represented in societal discourse.

As two of the most pressing mental health issues many worldwide faces, they often occur together, creating many challenges for individuals and healthcare professionals.

This article will explore the interconnected nature of PTSD and addiction and its challenges and highlight the innovative strategies used in their concurrent treatment.

Understanding PTSD

WHAT IS PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, often abbreviated as PTSD, is a mental health condition that’s triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.

These events may include personal assaults, natural disasters, accidents, military combat, or severe trauma.

Individuals with PTSD often suffer from intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings about their experiences long after the traumatic event ends.

They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares, exhibit changes in thoughts and mood, and experience severe anxiety, emotional distress, or even physical reactions to reminders of the event.

Notably, the severity, duration, and proximity of an individual’s exposure to the traumatic event are crucial factors that can influence the development of PTSD.

Understanding PTSD
Definition Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event, leading to intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the experience long after the event has ended.
Symptoms
  • Reliving the event through flashbacks or nightmares
  • Severe anxiety or emotional distress
  • Physical reactions to reminders of the event
  • Changes in thoughts and mood related to the event
  • Avoidance of anything that could be a reminder of the trauma
  • Hyperarousal and reactivity symptoms, such as being easily startled or having difficulty sleeping

CAUSE AND RISK FACTORS FOR DEVELOPING PTSD

It is essential to note that not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop PTSD; the condition’s emergence often depends on a combination of factors.

These include the individual’s mental and physical health before the event, their personal history of trauma or abuse, the intensity and duration of the traumatic event, and their access to support systems post-trauma.

Genetics also plays a role, as some people may be predisposed to developing PTSD due to a family history of anxiety and depressive disorders 1.

Additionally, certain personality traits, such as resilience or susceptibility to stress, can influence the likelihood of developing PTSD.

Lastly, a lack of proper immediate response or treatment following a traumatic event can increase the risk of PTSD.

IMPACT OF TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES ON MENTAL HEALTH

Traumatic experiences can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental health.

Exposure to trauma can trigger a range of responses, from short-term stress reactions to long-term mental health disorders like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and addiction disorders.

Trauma can disrupt a person’s sense of safety and security, leading to feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and fear.

The individual might constantly relive the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares, which can significantly interfere with daily life and functioning.

Moreover, trauma can impact one’s ability to regulate emotions and lead to difficulties in relationships, as individuals might isolate themselves to avoid reminders of the traumatic event.

Over time, these effects can compound and lead to more severe psychological distress and impairment if left untreated.

Thus, understanding and addressing the impacts of traumatic experiences on mental health is crucial in the journey toward healing and recovery.

The Connection Between PTSD and Addiction

SELF-MEDICATING AS A COPING MECHANISM

The concept of self-medication is a critical aspect of understanding why individuals grappling with mental health issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), might turn to addictive substances 2.

As a coping mechanism, self-medication involves using substances like alcohol, drugs, or prescription medication without medical supervision to alleviate emotional and psychological distress.

These substances might temporarily relieve symptoms by dulling the intensity of feelings like fear, anxiety, or depression.

However, they don’t address the root cause of these symptoms, and over time, reliance on these substances can escalate, leading to substance abuse or addiction.

Furthermore, while it may seem like these substances offer short-term relief, they can exacerbate mental health symptoms in the long term, create new health problems, and often delay the process of healing and recovery.

Therefore, understanding and addressing self-medication is crucial to effective mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

Common Substances and Behaviors Associated with PTSD and Addiction

PTSD AND ALCOHOL ABUSE

The relationship between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and alcohol abuse is complex and multifaceted.

Individuals with PTSD often resort to alcohol as a way of self-medication, attempting to alleviate distressing symptoms like hyperarousal, intrusive memories, and sleep disturbances 3.

Alcohol can momentarily provide relief and numbness, thus reinforcing its use as a coping mechanism.

However, this is a problematic approach as, over time, the consumption of alcohol can worsen PTSD symptoms, increase feelings of depression and anxiety, and lead to other health problems.

Additionally, excessive alcohol use can lead to dependency and addiction, creating another struggle for the individual.

In this context, alcohol abuse doesn’t resolve the underlying issues of PTSD; instead, it adds to the complexity of the condition, making recovery more challenging.

PTSD AND DRUG ADDICTION (OPIOIDS, COCAINE, METH, ETC.)

The connection between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and drug addiction, including opioids and stimulants, is a significant concern in mental health and addiction treatment.

Individuals with PTSD are often drawn to drugs to escape or dull their painful, traumatic memories and distressing symptoms.

Opioids, for instance, can temporarily relieve emotional pain and anxiety, while stimulants might be used to combat feelings of disconnection or numbness.

However, this relief is fleeting and usually followed by worsening PTSD symptoms, creating a vicious cycle of escalating drug use.

Over time, this self-medication practice can lead to physical dependence and addiction.

The result is a dual-diagnosis scenario where the individual is grappling with both PTSD and drug addiction, each condition intensifying the other, thereby making treatment more complex.

PTSD AND BEHAVIORAL ADDICTIONS (GAMBLING, SEX ADDICTION, ETC.)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is linked to substance abuse and behavioral addictions such as gambling and sex addiction.

These compulsive behaviors often serve as coping mechanisms, helping individuals escape their distressing thoughts and feelings associated with traumatic experiences.

For instance, the thrill of gambling might provide a temporary distraction from intrusive traumatic memories. At the same time, the transient emotional intimacy or excitement associated with compulsive sexual behavior may help to combat feelings of disconnection or numbness.

However, these behaviors can become compulsive over time, with individuals increasingly relying on them to manage their PTSD symptoms.

As with substance abuse, these behavioral addictions do not resolve the underlying PTSD but complicate the individual’s struggle by creating additional layers of problems, including financial hardship, relationship issues, and other mental health conditions.

Common Substances and Behaviors Associated with PTSD and Addiction
Substance Addictions
  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Stimulants (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamines)
  • Cannabis
  • Prescription medication (e.g., benzodiazepines)
Behavioral Addictions
  • Compulsive gambling
  • Sex addiction
  • Internet or gaming addiction
  • Eating disorders
  • Compulsive shopping

The Complex Interaction: PTSD, Addiction, and Dual Diagnosis

DUAL DIAGNOSIS AND PTSD

Dual diagnosis, also known as co-occurring disorders, is when an individual simultaneously experiences a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder.

In the context of PTSD and addiction, dual diagnosis is particularly relevant as these conditions often coexist and influence each other in a vicious cycle.

As discussed above, individuals with PTSD may turn to alcohol, drugs, or specific behaviors as a form of self-medication to manage their distressing symptoms, potentially leading to addiction.

Conversely, using these substances can exacerbate PTSD symptoms, creating a cycle that compounds the challenges for both conditions.

The concept of dual diagnosis is critical because it underscores the need for an integrated approach to treatment.

Rather than treating each disorder separately, the most effective treatment plans address PTSD and addiction concurrently, recognizing how these conditions interplay and impact one another.

DIAGNOSING AND TREATMENT FOR INDIVIDUALS WITH CO-OCCURRING DISORDERS

Diagnosing and treating individuals with co-occurring disorders, like PTSD and addiction, pose several unique challenges.

Firstly, the overlapping symptoms of PTSD and addiction can make diagnosis more complex.

For instance, increased anxiety, sleep disturbances, and concentration problems can be associated with both conditions, making it difficult to discern the primary disorder.

Additionally, individuals might be more open about their substance use issues but less forthcoming about their traumatic experiences due to stigma, fear, or avoidance, leading to the underdiagnosis of PTSD.

Secondly, traditional treatment models often address mental health disorders and addiction separately, which can be ineffective for individuals with co-occurring disorders.

Treating one condition without addressing the other often leads to poor treatment outcomes, as untreated symptoms from one disorder can trigger a relapse of the other.

Therefore, these challenges highlight the need for integrated treatment approaches that simultaneously address both disorders and for clinicians to be skilled in identifying and treating co-occurring conditions.

The Path To Healing

Treatment Approaches for PTSD and Addiction

Evidence-Based Therapies for PTSD
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps individuals understand and change thought patterns leading to harmful behaviors or distressing feelings. It aims to identify negative or false beliefs and replace them with healthier, more accurate ones.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) EMDR is a unique therapy for PTSD that involves focusing on trauma-related imagery and negative thoughts while simultaneously undergoing bilateral sensory input, such as side-to-side eye movements. This process works by allowing the brain to reprocess traumatic memories.
Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) PE involves gradually confronting trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations that an individual has been avoiding due to the distress they cause. The goal is to reduce avoidance behaviors and improve the emotional processing of traumatic memories.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) CPT focuses on helping individuals with PTSD modify and challenge unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma, promoting a more balanced and realistic understanding of the traumatic event.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) TF-CBT is specifically designed for children and adolescents with PTSD. It involves elements of cognitive-behavioral, attachment, humanistic, empowerment, and family therapy to help children and their parents overcome the impact of traumatic events.

EVIDENCE-BASED THERAPIES

Evidence-based therapies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been scientifically tested and proven effective in treating the disorder.

Among these therapies, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used.

CBT helps individuals understand and change thought patterns that lead to harmful behaviors or distressing feelings, providing them with tools to manage symptoms of PTSD.

Therapies like Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), subsets of CBT, help individuals confront and reprocess their trauma.

Another evidence-based therapy is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), unique in its approach to treating PTSD4.

EMDR involves the individual recalling trauma-related imagery and negative thoughts while receiving bilateral sensory input, such as side-to-side eye movements.

This process is believed to help the brain reprocess traumatic memories, reducing their emotional impact.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), designed for children and adolescents, incorporates various therapeutic approaches to help young people and their parents overcome the effects of traumatic events.

These therapies underscore the importance of an individualized approach to treatment, taking into account the specific needs and circumstances of each person living with PTSD.

SUPPORT NETWORKS AND PEER GROUPS

A support network is paramount in the recovery journey of individuals grappling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and addiction.

Such a network typically involves professionals like therapists, doctors, and social workers, alongside family, friends, and peers who have had similar experiences.

Peer support groups play a particularly significant role within this network.

They provide a safe, non-judgmental space for individuals to share their experiences, struggles, and achievements, fostering a sense of belonging and understanding that one is not alone in their journey.

Hearing others’ stories and coping strategies can provide practical insights and hope.

Moreover, helping others in peer support groups can enhance one’s self-esteem and sense of purpose.

These groups are often seen as a source of long-term support, complementing formal treatment.

TRAUMA-BASED REHABILITATION CENTERS

Cornerstone Healing Center of Scottsdale, Arizona, is a trauma-based rehab specializing in helping individuals recover from PTSD and Addiction.

At our center, we consider the significant impact of traumatic experiences on an individual’s mental health and substance use patterns.

We provide specialized, integrated treatment that addresses both the symptoms of PTSD and addiction simultaneously, which is crucial for individuals with co-occurring disorders.

Therapies we offer typically include evidence-based trauma-focused interventions such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), alongside addiction treatments like detoxification and relapse prevention planning.

Most importantly, we provide a safe, supportive environment sensitive to the needs of those who have experienced trauma.

We emphasize building a solid therapeutic alliance and ensuring that treatment is delivered at a pace that respects the individual’s readiness for change.

We believe that by addressing the root cause of trauma and its relation to substance use, we can increase the likelihood of long-term recovery and improved quality of life for our clients.

BREAK THE CYCLE!

While PTSD and Addiction can present formidable challenges, it’s important to remember that recovery is always possible.

With comprehensive and integrated treatment approaches, individuals can regain control over their lives and pave their paths toward healing and wellness.

The journey may be challenging, but the human spirit’s resilience is unyielding.

There is a world beyond PTSD and addiction, filled with possibilities, personal growth, and profound peace.

So, remember, it’s not about the storm you faced but how you sailed your ship that matters most!

If you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD and Addiction, please reach out to our free and confidential line to speak with one of our specialists.

SOURCE

[1] Genetics of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Informing Clinical Conceptualizations and Promoting Future Research

[2] Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders

[3] Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Alcohol Addiction

[4] Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

PUBLISHED: 6/19/2023

Contributor: Julie Miller
Co-Contributor: Susana Spiegel

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julie miller recovery writer and author

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Julie is a recovery advocate, with over two years sober. She is a recovery speaker who believes people can change for the better. Her mission is to write factual, helpful information about addiction, treatment, and recovery. She believes that no one should be left in the dark about the process at any stage of their recovery.
lionel-estrada-lasac.webp

Clinical Reviewer

Lionel, a Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor (LISAC) with over 4 years at Cornerstone. Passionate about helping those with addiction, he has trained as an EMDR therapist  adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of addiction, providing an empathetic approach.

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