The Correlation Between PTSD and Substance Abuse

About 70 percent of adults – nearly 225 million people – in the United States have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives: assault, abuse, death, war. Up to 20 percent of these people – about 45 million adults – go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Women are twice as likely as men to develop the disorder, according to PTSD United.

Unfortunately, for those facing post-traumatic stress disorder, this is often just the start. More than half and up to two-thirds of people who battle PTSD also battle an addiction simultaneously. The reverse is true, as well. When two disorders co-occur in this way, it is called dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorders.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by a traumatic or life-threatening event. It often comes about months after the experience, though can show even years later. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Avoidance of the people, places, or things associated with the traumatic event
  • Reexperiencing the event through flashbacks, frightening thoughts, or nightmares
  • Arousal and reactivity, such as angry outbursts or being easily startled
  • Difficulty sleeping at night
  • Negative selfimage and distorted thoughts or feelings of guilt
  • Memory issues

PTSD and substance abuse have a complex relationship, as those who have faced trauma are often drawn to drugs to cope with their negative feelings. This is especially true for women (and men) who have faced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in their pasts. Often, the afflicted will use drugs or drink alcohol to escape pain or “feel better,” as drugs are chemicals that trigger a temporary sense of pleasure or relief in the brain. We often refer to this as self-medication, a common cause of drug addiction.

You see, when a person experiences high levels of stress, their levels of adrenaline increase, and their levels of GABA, a natural tranquilizer produced by the brain, decrease. Drugs such as marijuana, painkillers (opioids), alcohol, and benzodiazepines can stimulate this natural tranquilizer back, as well as increase a person’s dopamine levels. These chemicals temporarily make a person feel happy. The problem is, they are usually followed by extremely low moods once the substance wears off. This withdrawal period can also worsen the symptoms of PTSD, making a person want to use again. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism can also delay treatment progress or make the symptoms of PTSD last longer.

In addition to the low moods that drugs cause, the other major issue with substance use for PTSD is that many of these “relieving” drugs are also very addictive. Repeated drug use causes the brain to become reliant on drugs to function effectively. For this reason, drug addiction is considered a brain disease – drugs physiologically change the way our brain works and make it very hard to stop.

PTSD and substance abuse affect the same regions of the brain and the same brain chemicals. Chronic stress and chronic drug abuse can both interfere with a person’s ability to control impulses, retain memories, and learn new things. Also, when a person recovers from a stressful event, they will go through a sort of “withdrawal” period, mirroring the same symptoms of withdrawal from drugs: anxiety, depression, physical pain, emotional distress, increased cravings if they are already exposed to drugs or alcohol. These after effects can lead a person into, or back into, substance abuse.

Those who suffer from PTSD are two to four times more likely to face substance addiction, according to the journal of Clinical Psychology. Not only this, but chronic stress and trauma can increase a person’s vulnerability to substance addiction and relapse.

If you or a loved one is battling either PTSD or substance addiction, or both, you are not alone. While the negative emotional, mental, and physical effects of these co-occurring disorders are devastating, it is important for you to know that there is help available. As with any case of dual diagnosis, treating co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse disorders simultaneously, at the same time and place, with an integrated approach, is key to getting and living healthy.

There are several different ways to approach the treatment of PTSD and substance abuse. Detox is usually the first step if a person is addicted to drugs. Behavioral therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are also recommended. These can help clients learn how to manage stress and deal with potential relapse triggers, such as flashbacks or negative feelings as a result of the co-occurring diseases. Behavioral therapies can also help enhance a person’s self-esteem and modify negative thoughts.

Exposure therapy is another common methodology used to treated PTSD alongside substance abuse. Exposure therapy, combined with behavioral therapy, teaches clients how to face their fears and traumas. With these methods, they can also develop healthy coping techniques to help them move past the aftermath of trauma.

Turnbridge, a young adult, dual diagnosis treatment center in Connecticut, uses a conjunction of therapies to treat co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse. Behavioral therapies combined with group and individual counseling are leveraged to reduce anxiety, depression, and promote healthy living in our clients. Staff are experienced and trained in treating co-occurring disorders, and develop recovery care plans that are tailored to each individual client’s needs. The women’s treatment program clinicians are also specifically trained in trauma-informed therapy for those battling PTSD and substance addiction. To learn more about our trauma-informed care, please visit here.

If you or a loved one needs treatment for PTSD and/or addiction, please do not hesitate to reach out. For more information about Turnbridge’s young men’s and women’s treatment programs, call 877-581-1793 today.