PTSD is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. While many of us link the disorder with military service and war, an estimated 6.8% of the population will have PTSD at some point during their lives, or more than 5.2 million Americans. That’s important, not just because anyone with PTSD needs PTSD Therapy and Treatment to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, but also because that trauma and mental health disorder puts them at significant risk of other disorders and health problems.
One of the most notable of those is addiction, or substance use disorder. Individuals with PTSD are very vulnerable to substance abuse and substance use disorder. In fact, of the 21.6 million Americans with a substance use disorder in 2019, 38.5% meet at least some of the criterion for PTSD, current or lifetime.
If you or a loved one has been through a traumatic event, it’s important to seek treatment. This is especially true if you’re also abusing substances or “self-medicating”. Understanding how PTSD impacts your risk of substance use disorder, impacts substance use, and changes how you approach substances can help you to make better decisions and make the right choices for treatment and ongoing care.
What is PTSD?
While millions of Americans struggle with PTSD, many ignore it. The national picture of post-traumatic stress disorder is that of the veteran. While it is true that serving in the military and exposure to war environments greatly increases the likelihood of PTSD (30% of veterans experience PTSD vs 6.8% of general population), there are many ways to get PTSD. In most cases, PTSD is triggered by life threatening situations in which the individual loses control over whether they live or die. This includes instances of sexual abuse, childhood abuse, physical assault, robbery, car accidents, natural disasters, and exposure to war zones. For this reason, individuals with addiction are much more likely to develop PTSD, because they are much more likely to be exposed to these types of dangerous life situations.
PTSD is sometimes colloquially described as a continuation of the fight or flight response. This is somewhat true, as it related to how the adrenal system releases cortisol. With PTSD, the body continues to respond to normal events as though they were high stress, life or death. As a result, individuals become significantly stressed and that doesn’t go away.
The DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that symptoms of PTSD include but are not limited to:
- Intrusive memories, dreams, flashbacks, emotions
- Trauma avoidance (E.g., avoiding people, places, emotions) (avoidance can also mean drinking or using to numb those emotions)
- Negative mood changes such as persistent guilt, apathy, irritability, anger, withdrawal, etc.
If you or a loved one has gone through a traumatic event and is experiencing negative side effects, it’s important to see a doctor, regardless of substance use. PTSD greatly affects quality of life, but it is treatable and manageable.
Does PTSD Increase Substance Use
Yes. Multiple studies show that individuals with PTSD are significantly more likely to use drugs and alcohol. This relates to several factors including risk-seeking, self-medication, and reduced impulse control. This increase in likelihood of substance abuse and substance use means an increased risk of substance use disorder through exposure. Here, studies show significant differences in how many PTSD patients also heavily use alcohol, but the answer is always a significant percentage. For example, in one study34% of PTSD patients also abused drugs or alcohol.
Mood Swings – Negative emotions heavily increase risks of substance abuse, and PTSD causes negative emotions. Loneliness, sadness, guilt, exhaustion, and fear contribute to substance abuse. If you’re constantly experiencing those emotions because you’re caught in a trauma loop, you are significantly more likely to use and abuse drugs and alcohol. And, with consistent drug or alcohol abuse, you eventually become dependent and addicted. Unfortunately, drug and alcohol abuse. makes most people feel worse, dropping the mood, and causing more mood swings. Eventually, you create a negative feedback loop in which you feel bad so you self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, then you feel bad because you used drugs or alcohol so you self-medicate with drugs or alcohol – and so on.
Risk-Taking – Mental health disorders often contribute to an increase in impulsive decisions and actions. This relates to serotonin’s effect on regulation and managing risk-taking behavior. Reduced serotonin increases risk-taking behavior, as individuals have less to lose (because they already feel bad) and are seeking serotonin highs. This leads to more drugs and alcohol, more often, even if the individual isn’t normally the type to do so.
Self-Medication – Self-medication is the practice of using drugs or alcohol to numb yourself, to feel better, or as a reward for doing something difficult. This practice starts out small but leads to increasing tolerance to drugs and alcohol and eventually dependence. That’s also important for individuals with a PTSD diagnosis and medication. For example, most PTSD medications include a Risk Evaluation and Management Schedule (REMS) designed to ensure that you don’t self-medicate and become addicted. Yet, anyone diagnosed with PTSD more than 5 years ago likely didn’t receive a REMS program with their prescription.
Essentially, PTSD results in an increased vulnerability to substance abuse, which, in turn, increases risks of addiction. However, PTSD increases vulnerability to addiction in other ways.
Addiction and PTSD
There is a significant overlap between PTSD patients and addiction. For example, in one study, 34% of PTSD patients were substance abusers. In another study, 5.6% of PTSD victims suffered from alcohol use disorder after a single year while 7.7% were dependent on alcohol within a year.
These statistics also hold true for veterans with PTSD. 1 out of 3 veterans receiving treatment for SUD also have PTSD. 20% of veterans with PTSD also have a substance use disorder.
Essentially, there’s an extremely heavy overlap between substance use disorder and PTSD.
Getting Dual Diagnosis Treatment
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use and PTSD, it’s important to seek out treatment that can tackle both. This means finding a dual diagnosis program, like the one offered at the Gooden Recovery Center. Here, you have to treat the most life-threatening problems first, followed by using motivational and resistance reduction treatment so that you can benefit from therapy. This is important because the symptoms of PTSD make many people resistant to addiction treatment, while an addiction makes it very difficult to actually treat PTSD. You need to treat both together to avoid relapse.
Our Men’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility offers a comfortable, home-like environment, in which we can assess your needs, provide medical care, and treat a co-occurring disorder. This dual-track approach combines behavioral therapy with detox, counseling, and complementary therapy, in a treatment program designed around your individual needs. This gives the individual the best chance of recovering from both disorders and moving into a healthy recovery.