The Relationship Between PTSD and Addiction

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder in which chronic fear and anxiety persist due to emotionally disturbing or painful events. Dangerous or devastating events that have elicited high amounts of fear, pain, or anxiety can cause recurring flashbacks and disturbing memories that interfere with a person’s daily life activities.

PTSD can be extremely debilitating and can prevent a person from carrying on daily tasks and maintaining meaningful relationships. To cope with life’s difficulties, and to lessen the pain felt from a traumatic experience, some people turn to drugs as a way of escaping from the painful memories. Persistent use of drugs can cause individuals to become chemically and psychologically dependent lead to an addiction.

It is important to recognize the warning signs of PTSD and its co-occurring “cousin” addiction because it can lead to extremely harmful effects on not just, but on the people who care and support the individual as well.

Examples of Events or Risk Factors That Cause PTSD

It is important to understand the events or risk factors that cause PTSD and how they impact a person’s ability to maintain a meaningful and healthy life. Some examples of events include:

  • Military combat
  • Substance abuse
  • Near-fatal accidents
  • Sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Witnessing a life-threatening event
  • Traumatic event like losing a loved one or going to prison
  • Natural disasters

Symptoms of PTSD

Recognizing the symptoms of PTSD is the first step in understanding the disorder and seeking help. According to the NIMH, in order to be formally diagnosed with PTSD, the following symptoms must occur for at least one month:

  • Having recurring flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts from the event
  • Avoiding certain people, places, or things that trigger painful memories of the traumatic event
  • Avoiding one’s own thoughts or feelings about the traumatic event
  • Exhibiting extreme levels of anxiety or fear
  • Being easily startled or frightened by a person, place, or thing
  • Experiencing sleeplessness or night terrors
  • Having feelings of numbness and detaching oneself from friends and family
  • Displaying outbursts of intense anger
  • Having negative thoughts or feelings about oneself
  • Disengaging in activities that were once enjoyable

PTSD and Addiction

Coping with a traumatic event can be an extremely trying journey, filled with feelings of detachment and loneliness. When people are filled with intense flashbacks of a hardship they endured or witnessed, some people revert to negative behaviors to cope with the painful or disturbing memories.

The National Center for PTSD notes that being diagnosed with PTSD increases the risk for developing substance abuse problems. They reported that “up to a third of those who survive traumatic accidents, illness, or disasters report drinking problems.” Reports have shown that men and women who have been sexually abused have higher rates of substance abuse. Additionally, 1 out of 3 Veterans who are treated for a substance abuse disorder also have PTSD. If left untreated, alcohol and drugs can have devastating effects on those diagnosed with PTSD.

Drugs serve as a catalyst for cycle-of-avoidance behavior for people diagnosed with PTSD. Individuals with PTSD try to avoid their own thoughts and detach themselves from the activities and people they previously enjoyed. Individuals use drugs as an escape mechanism to alleviate the recurring memories elicited by the traumatic experience.

Consequently, drugs and alcohol make it very difficult for individuals to sustain meaningful relationships with significant others, family, and friends. People with PTSD can seem volatile, may display outbursts of anger, have recurring painful thoughts, and subsequently use drugs and alcohol to numb the feelings of anxiety and depression. Substance abuse further causes individuals diagnosed with PTSD to disrupt functions of everyday life and make it more difficult to hold a job or enjoy leisure activities.

The is a cruel reality that one of the devastating effects of experiencing major trauma is a potential dependence on drugs and alcohol. With our over-exposed modern lives, it is more important than ever that individuals with PTSD and addiction seek help in order to overcome both disorders.

Treatment for PTSD and Addiction

Individuals who have a dual diagnosis of PTSD and addiction may not fully understand their disorders and may not necessarily seek treatment. However, it is vital that friends and family members recognize the symptoms of the dual diagnosis and encourage the individual to seek a 12-step treatment program run by a team of professionally trained psychotherapists, medical experts, counselors, and pastors.

The following are ways to treat PTSD and addiction:

Establishing a Strong Spiritual Foundation for Individuals with PTSD and Addiction

Recovering from PTSD and addiction is a long and difficult process, but one that can also be nurtured and supported through establishing a strong spiritual foundation. Establishing a strong sense of faith during the recovery process can restore the person’s mind, body, and spirit. The individual will greatly benefit from feeling enveloped by support through individual and group therapy sessions, and an aftercare treatment program that helps individuals avoid a relapse. A recovery program with a strong spiritual foundation can truly help individuals struggling with PTSD and addiction overcome their difficult moments while strengthening their faith in God.

At Covenant Hills Treatment in Orange County, California and in San Antonio, Texas, clients work with pastors, therapists, and counselors who are professionally trained to implement a Christian-based treatment program. They help individuals connect to a larger faith community and support the process of finding purpose again in one’s life beyond this co-occurring diagnosis.

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