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It is estimated that almost 60 percent of people who are seeking treatment for a substance use disorder are also living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This number does not account for those who were diagnosed previously with PTSD and overcame the disorder through treatment or those who developed PTSD after a traumatic experience but never received a formal diagnosis. This means that it is likely that the true number is higher.
What is the connection between PTSD and substance abuse and addiction? Why is it that so many people who are living with PTSD symptoms also struggle with drinking and alcohol abuse?
There is a lot we don’t know about why many people will experience a traumatic event and develop PTSD while others do not. There is also a lot we don’t know regarding why many will drink moderately or experiment with illicit substances and never develop a problem while others will. That being said, we do have some answers about the connections between PTSD and addiction.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is diagnosed in clients who experience intrusive symptoms after going through or bearing witness to trauma. These symptoms can be extremely disruptive to the person’s ability to interact positively with others, sleep, work, and otherwise function in the world.
They may be defined by:
It is also not uncommon for people who struggle with PTSD to experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors as well as symptoms of varying intensity that contribute to a sense of instability.
Often, a combination of issues can contribute to the development of the problem including early first use, genetics, environment, and a co-occurring mental health disorder.
No matter what the drug of choice, chronic use and abuse can lead to physical and psychological dependence as well as an inability to quit without professional treatment. Though many turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to deal with high levels of stress or other uncomfortable emotions, the result is usually an even longer list of problems. Relationship difficulties, a hard time getting or maintaining employment, and health problems – as long as compulsive use of drugs and alcohol is a driving force, it is difficult to find balance.
Whether or not PTSD results, trauma is very often connected to substance use and abuse. Though no causal relationship has been shown, it is clear that the experience of trauma can be one of the issues underlying or related to drug and alcohol abuse.
Why? Consider the symptoms associated with PTSD – the emotions experienced after sexual or physical abuse, living through a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, seeing others succumb to the same, and living through war. The desire to escape these memories is understandable, and many mistakenly believe that they will be able to accomplish this feat by drinking or using drugs.
Healthfully managing triggers – both the triggers caused by PTSD and the triggers to drink or get high – is the primary challenge in recovery from both disorders.
For everyone, the best coping mechanisms may vary and depend upon:
No matter what the specifics are, intensive treatment for both disorders that emphasizes healthy lifestyle choices and relapse prevention can be successful in helping the individual to build a balanced life in recovery.
When both PTSD and a substance use disorder are diagnosed, early intervention is recommended as is the comprehensive care mentioned above. Though each person’s experience is different and will require a unique treatment plan, in general, treatment for the co-occurring disorders of substance abuse or addiction and PTSD may include:
Learn About Treating Co-Occurring Disorders