Substance Abuse and PTSD

women on couch talking

Substance abuse and PTSD, is a common co-occurring disorder seen in clients at Simple Recovery and at treatment centers across the country. The unbearable pain and debilitating memories that accompany PTSD can make drugs or alcohol look like an emotional relief – at first. However, the “solution” quickly becomes the problem, as individuals realize they are dependent on the substance and still experiencing the negative impacts of PTSD. Effective treatment involves addressing both disorders simultaneously in order to bring the individual to a state of wellness, wholeness and long-term sobriety. Read on to understand what PTSD and symptoms of PTSD look like, substance abuse related to PTSD, and treatment options.

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a mental disorder that develops after a traumatic experience or event. Common triggers for PTSD include:

  • Exposure to military combat
  • Natural disasters (fire, tornado, flood, etc.)
  • Serious accidents, such as a car crash
  • Sexual, physical and/or verbal abuse
  • Extreme grief or loss

The event may happen to the individual or someone close to them. While most people experience a stress reaction to these occurrences, not everyone will develop PTSD. Those that do may find it very difficult to cope with the symptoms and turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of dealing with the impactful event, or series of events.

Symptoms of PTSD
Some people will experience symptoms of PTSD shortly after the event, while others will not see symptoms develop for many months or even years. Some of the most common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing or reliving the traumatic event
  • Flashbacks or dreams of the event
  • Avoidance of situations or places that serve as reminders of the event
  • Negative feelings or feeling emotionally numb
  • Loss of interest in former enjoyable activities
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Hyperarousal, difficulty concentrating or sleeping
  • Chronic pain or other physical symptoms

People suffering with PTSD may have difficulty holding down stable employment or they may experience serious relationship issues because of their disorder. As a result, some individuals with PTSD may isolate themselves, feeling like no one can understand their condition. Unfortunately, isolation can also lead to the development of substance abuse over time.

Prevalence of PTSD and Substance Abuse
While not everyone diagnosed with PTSD will develop a substance use disorder, the likelihood is much higher for this group. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder. Nearly one-third of veterans seeking treatment for a substance abuse disorder are also diagnosed with PTSD.

A 2007 study published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry found that among people diagnosed with lifetime PTSD, the incidence of substance abuse disorders ranged from 21-43 percent. In the population without PTSD, that incidence went down to 8-25 percent. This study also found PTSD to be more frequent among females. Women typically experience PTSD after sexual assault or abuse, while the most common trigger of PTSD in men is combat.

The “Self-Medication” Trap
PTSD is an isolating disorder that can be paralyzing and seem impossible to recover from, particularly since many people with this condition feel as though no one else understands their situation or pain. This leads some to pull away from others, removing the ability to receive comfort and support from those closest to them. Instead, they may turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Known as “self-medicating,” this process can create more of a problem over time as the person becomes dependent on their substance of choice.

The problem is that instead of working on constructive ways to deal with the trauma that led to the disorder, drugs and/or alcohol replace the ability to cope with the feelings and anxiety that accompany trauma. This is a slippery slope that can cause substance users to abandon hope of turning to others for support. Instead of learning coping mechanisms that can heal trauma, the individual learns only to rely on the substance for escape.

The more substances are used, the more likely that problems related to trauma will multiply. The very substance that seemed to make the person originally “feel better” will eventually intensify the depression and anxiety caused by the trauma. Hostility and aggression may also surface as the person’s ability to control emotions and behaviors diminishes. At this point, if the individual wishes to regain control of their life and their sobriety, treatment will be required for both the substance abuse disorder and the PTSD.

Treatment can Work
While the darkness that comes from these co-occurring disorders may look nearly impossible to overcome, effective treatment is available for those in need. In most cases, chemical dependency will need to be addressed first, which may include hospitalization depending on the severity of dependency. Once an individual is clean of all abused substances, they have a much better chance at recovering from PTSD with therapies specifically designed for this condition.
There are a number of treatment options that can be used for clients with PTSD and substance abuse disorders. Here are some of the most effective options:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – CBT helps the client change how they think about the trauma and the effects afterward. Distressing thoughts are identified and replaced with positive ones. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also be effectively used to treat chemical dependency, making it a good choice for co-occurring disorders.
  • Exposure Therapy – Exposure Therapy exposes the client to the trauma in a safe environment where they can learn to cope with the feelings that arise when confronted with their past. Mental imagery, journaling or visits to the location where the event(s) occurred might be incorporated into this treatment.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – This rather new type of treatment teaches a client to focus on sounds or hand movements while discussing the trauma, giving them a safe way to explore and process the event.

This is just a handful of tools available to those struggling with dual diagnosis disorders. At Simple Recovery, we offer a wide range of treatment options to help clients in seemingly hopeless situations find new life and confidence to move forward and recover from trauma and substance abuse.
If you or a loved one are in need of help for these co-occurring disorders, help is available. Contact Simple Recovery today at 888-743-0490.