What is the Relationship Between PTSD and Substance Abuse?

July 16, 2023

Individually, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse can be debilitating, but when they co-occur, their impact intensifies. 

Studies have shown that a significant number of individuals with PTSD also struggle with substance abuse, making it crucial to explore the intersection between these two conditions. In fact, research stated that people diagnosed with PTSD are 14 times more likely to suffer from substance use disorder.

By gaining insight into the prevalence and implications of PTSD and substance abuse co-occurrence, we can begin to navigate this complex terrain and work towards effective prevention, intervention, and recovery strategies.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It is a complex disorder that affects individuals of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. 

PTSD can occur in response to a single traumatic incident or a prolonged period of trauma, such as military combat, natural disasters, physical or sexual assault, accidents, or the sudden loss of a loved one.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can vary from person to person but generally fall into four main categories. These are as follows:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories

Recurrent nightmares, distressing memories, or flashbacks of the traumatic event.

  • Avoidance behavior

Efforts to avoid reminders of the trauma, such as avoiding certain places, people, or activities that trigger distressing memories.

  • Negative changes in thinking and mood

Persistent negative emotions, guilt, shame, or feelings of detachment. Distorted thoughts about oneself or the world, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, and difficulties in maintaining close relationships.

  • Hyperarousal and increased reactivity

Hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and sleep disturbances.

  • Emotional and physical distress

Intense and uncontrollable emotions, including fear, anger, sadness, and guilt. These are often accompanied by physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches.

Who is more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder?

While anyone can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing a traumatic event, certain factors may increase an individual's vulnerability. Here are some groups of people who may be more likely to develop PTSD:

  • Survivors of interpersonal violence
  • Military personnel and veterans
  • First responders and emergency workers
  • Refugees, survivors of war, or political conflict.
  • People who experienced childhood trauma.

People with PTSD experience distressing symptoms and overwhelming emotions associated with their traumatic abuse. As a result, most of them resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse. 

What is substance use disorder (SUD)?

Substance use disorder or substance abuse, also known as addiction, refers to a chronic and relapsing condition characterized by the compulsive use of substances despite harmful consequences. 

It is a complex disorder that affects the brain and behavior, leading to the inability to control substance use and the development of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Some of the possible effects of substance abuse on physical, mental, and emotional well-being include:

  • Organ damage
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Respiratory problems
  • Increased risk of overdose, which can be fatal
  • Worsening of co-occurring mental health condition.
  • Strained relationships with loved ones
  • Social isolation
  • Poor work and academic performance
  • Impaired cognitive performance

Some of the most common causes of substance abuse include genetic predisposition, environmental factors, trauma, stress, and mental health disorders. 

How does PTSD contribute to substance abuse?

The relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse is complex and bidirectional. There is a strong correlation between the two, with individuals with PTSD being at a higher risk for developing substance use disorders (SUD) and individuals with SUD being more likely to experience PTSD.

Self-medication and coping

Individuals with PTSD may turn to substances as a way to self-medicate and cope with the distressing symptoms of their trauma. 

Drugs or alcohol can temporarily alleviate anxiety, numb emotional pain, or help individuals escape from intrusive thoughts and memories associated with their traumatic experiences.

Increased vulnerability

PTSD can increase an individual's vulnerability to developing a substance use disorder. The emotional and psychological distress caused by PTSD can make individuals more susceptible to experimenting with substances and developing an addiction to find relief or escape.

Common underlying factors

Both PTSD and substance abuse can have underlying factors in common. For example, individuals with a history of trauma or childhood abuse may be at a higher risk for PTSD and substance abuse. 

Co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, can contribute to the development of both disorders.

Mutual maintenance

PTSD and substance abuse can perpetuate and exacerbate each other. Substance abuse can impact the course and severity of post-traumatic stress disorder, causing the following:

  • Intensify PTSD symptoms
  • Impaired emotional regulation
  • Increased risk of re-traumatization
  • Interfere with the effectiveness of treatment
  • Impede the recovery process

In turn, the distressing symptoms of PTSD can trigger cravings and lead to relapse, as individuals may turn to substances again to cope with their symptoms.

Impaired functioning and treatment challenges

The co-occurrence of PTSD and substance abuse can significantly impact an individual's overall functioning, treatment outcomes, and recovery. It may complicate diagnosis, as symptoms of one disorder can mask or mimic the other. 

Integrated treatment approaches that address both disorders simultaneously are often necessary to achieve successful outcomes.

Understanding the relationship between PTSD and substance abuse is crucial for providing comprehensive and effective care. It highlights the importance of addressing trauma and implementing integrated approaches that target both disorders to promote lasting recovery and improved quality of life.

What are the different interventions and treatment strategies?

Intervention strategies for individuals with co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse can vary depending on each individual's specific needs and circumstances. Here are the strategies commonly used:

Screening and assessment

Conducting routine screenings and assessments for trauma, PTSD, and substance abuse in various settings, including healthcare settings, schools, and social service agencies, can help identify individuals needing intervention and support.

Integrated treatment

Providing integrated treatment approaches that address both PTSD and substance abuse simultaneously can effectively target the underlying issues and improve outcomes. 

This can involve therapy modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and trauma-focused therapies combined with substance abuse counseling.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

For individuals with co-occurring disorders, the use of medications under medical supervision may be appropriate to manage symptoms of both PTSD and substance abuse. When combined with therapy, medication-assisted treatment can support recovery and reduce the risk of relapse.

Peer support and group therapy

Engaging individuals in peer support groups or group therapy can provide a sense of community, validation, and shared experiences, promoting healing and reducing feelings of isolation.

Relapse prevention

Providing relapse prevention strategies, coping skills training, and ongoing support after treatment can help individuals maintain their recovery and manage potential triggers or setbacks effectively.

PTSD trauma retreat

A PTSD trauma retreat is an intensive therapeutic program designed to address the underlying trauma contributing to PTSD and substance abuse. It typically involves a structured and supportive environment where individuals engage in various evidence-based therapies, experiential activities, and psychoeducation. 

The retreat provides a safe space for individuals to process their trauma, learn coping skills, and develop strategies to manage their symptoms and substance use.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a psychotherapy approach specifically designed to alleviate the distressing symptoms of PTSD. It involves guided eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation while the individual recalls traumatic memories. 

This process helps reprocess traumatic memories and associated beliefs, reducing their emotional impact and promoting adaptive resolution. EMDR can be used as part of an integrated treatment approach to address both PTSD and substance abuse.

It's important to note that these intervention strategies are just a couple of examples, and the treatment plan should be tailored to each individual's unique needs.

Where to find the best trauma recovery retreat?

Are you a first responder or an individual affected by trauma seeking specialized and compassionate care? Look no further than 11th Hour Trauma, a leading facility dedicated to trauma treatment for first responders and others impacted by traumatic experiences. 

At 11th Hour Trauma, we understand the unique challenges and needs that individuals in these roles face, and we are committed to providing tailored treatment and support to help you heal and reclaim your life.

Our facility offers a comprehensive range of evidence-based therapies and interventions specifically designed to address trauma. This includes the following:

From trauma-focused therapies to specialized group support, we are here to guide you every step of the way. Contact us today at (772) 475-3334 to learn more about our programs or schedule a free consultation, and begin your journey to lasting recovery.

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.

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