Various types of trauma can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health disorder that is characterized by high levels of fear and disturbing thoughts or feelings related to a specific traumatic event or series of events. People who have PTSD and a history of trauma are more likely to develop a substance use disorder than others as a self-medication strategy.
Read on to find out more about PTSD and how substance use disorder comes into play for people who suffer from the disorder.
PTSD is a mental health disorder that develops after a person is either witness to or involved in a traumatic event. Examples of traumatic events include natural disasters, serious accidents, and being in a war, especially active combat.
PTSD was originally associated with people who had fought in wars. It was referred to as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” during World Wars I and II.
It was later discovered that PTSD can happen to anybody who experience any form of trauma regardless of their ethnicity, gender, nationality, culture, or age. According to the American Psychiatric Association, as many as 3.5% of American adults cope with PTSD every year.
PTSD recovery sometimes can be divided into stages. These include:
PTSD can be a debilitating condition. According to the diagnostic criteria used in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), 20 symptoms that are divided into four groupings are used to diagnose PTSD. They include:
It is typical for the above symptoms to develop in a person following a traumatic event, however, that does not mean they have PTSD. The symptoms will have to affect a person's ability to function in their day-to-day life for longer than a month to be diagnosed with PTSD.
Many people used to believe that PTSD was simply a combat veteran’s disorder, however, it can happen to anyone. Types of trauma that can be linked to PTSD include:
Although both men and women can develop PTSD following any type of traumatic event, women are more likely to experience the disorder following a natural disaster than men are.
PTSD and substance use disorder go hand in hand for many people. This is because substances appear to grant temporary relief from symptoms.
The risk of people with PTSD abusing substances is 3 times higher than it is in the general population. Because of their disorder, people with PTSD are highly vulnerable when it comes to substance reliance and substance use. According to research, up to 36.6% of people with substance use disorder also have PTSD.
After traumatic events, people may turn to substances to help them cope with their symptoms. The type of symptoms a person experiences may also dictate the substances they will use to help cope with their disorder. For example, certain symptoms that involve the inability to calm the mind may drive a person to use depressants such as alcohol.
When a person with PTSD begins to self-medicate to cope with the symptoms of their disorder, they often begin to feel relief. However, that relief only occurs when they are using the substances.
This leads to an increased risk of substance use because the only time people with PTSD may feel as though they can control or cover up their thoughts, feelings, or actions is when they are under the influence of certain substances.
The reliance on these substances to feel positive emotions and escape from the negative ones can contribute to addiction.
In the short term, people with PTSD feel relieved of their symptoms. However, the continued and long-term use of substances can worsen the symptoms of PTSD. It can also lead to the development of other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Substance use disorder is an example of a mental health disorder that co-occurs with PTSD. Other conditions or symptoms that can develop in a person with PTSD include:
While not everyone with PTSD will develop depression, it is estimated that over 50% of individuals with PTSD will also develop major depressive disorder (MDD) at some point.
Treating someone with both PTSD and substance use disorder is a complicated process. The outcome of treatment is also less favorable when compared to treating a person with just one of the two conditions. There are several treatment options available for someone who has both PTSD and substance use disorder.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a type of therapy that focuses on problematic thought processes and behaviors, is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD and substance use disorder. One specific type of CBT that has been shown to be effective for both disorders is prolonged exposure.
Prolonged exposure therapy allows people to take a gradual approach to their trauma-based feelings and memories so that the fear can be processed in a healthy way. The two facets of exposure used in this type of therapy are:
These methods of therapy have been shown to be effective for people who suffer from both substance use disorder and PTSD.
Cognitive processing therapy is also strongly recommended for people with PTSD. It works by challenging and modifying unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma in a way that leads to changes in disturbing thought patterns or behaviors.
Mindfulness is a practice that is used to encourage people to pay attention to and be fully present in the current experience and to nonjudgmentally accept feelings, thoughts, and sensations regardless of how negative they are. For people with substance use disorder and PTSD, mindfulness is designed to help a person become less reactive or overwhelmed by feelings of fear that may lead to substance use.
There is little research surrounding the use of medications for PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorder. Medications may be given for symptoms of PTSD, and, in addition, medication-assisted treatments for substance use disorders may also be prescribed.
One study looked at alcohol overuse in people with PTSD and found that combining the medications Paxil (paroxetine) and Vivitrol (naltrexone) led to both fewer PTSD symptoms and a reduction in days in which a person drank heavily. Paroxetine is an antidepressant and naltrexone is a type of opioid drug.
By combining medications that work on both PTSD symptoms and substance use disorder, researchers were able to find something that could positively influence the recovery of both conditions.
The Seeking Safety program is a nonexposure-based therapy that helps patients with co-occurring substance abuse and PTSD. Topics raised during the Seeking Safety program are:
According to the American Addiction Centers, substance use disorder requires different forms of treatment. They include:
Aside from the aforementioned therapy methods, PTSD can be treated using:
If you are self-medicating after going through a traumatic event, it’s important to call your healthcare provider right away. Substance use only relieves the pain in the short term and can worsen symptoms of PTSD in the long run. Your healthcare provider can determine the best course of treatment for you that will provide longer-lasting results.
PTSD and substance use disorder are often co-occurring conditions. Self-medicating can be an easy to way to escape the negative thoughts or sensations for a short time. However, using substances to help quell the negative emotions does not help in the long term.
There are many techniques and treatment options available for people who are suffering from PTSD and substance use disorder, such as therapy, medications, and mindfulness practices. Getting help as soon as possible for both PTSD and substance abuse will aid in a quicker and more lasting recovery.
Living with PTSD can be extremely difficult. When you find something that helps dim the negative feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using it to help shut out the memories of your trauma. Unfortunately, the relief is generally short lived and may even lead to worsening of the disorder.
Traumatic experiences are personal and only you know how you feel. Getting proper treatment for both substance use disorder and PTSD can help you get through your past trauma.
Research shows that the prolonged use of substances can lead to PTSD symptoms becoming worse. In addition, substance use can potentially lead to reckless and risk-taking behavior, and possibly exposing you to dangerous situations and further trauma.
Many people who have PTSD often turn to substances to help them cope with the symptoms of their disorder. Research has shown that roughly 36.6% of people with substance use disorder also have PTSD.
Sometimes. Substance use can co-occur with PTSD because of how substances can block out certain symptoms in the short term. For example, some people with PTSD may resort to the use of alcohol because it can depress or numb their emotions to the point where negative thoughts or feelings are easier to deal with.
There are many events that can qualify as traumatic regarding PTSD. Examples include:
PTSD recovery may be divided into five stages: impact, denial/numbing, rescue, intermediate recovery, and long-term recovery. Going through the five stages can lead to permanent recovery.