The Link Between Substance Abuse & PTSD

In an online bulletin that was designed to encourage greater research and prompt additional discussion about the relationship between stress and substance abuse, The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has noted that “an emerging body of research has documented a very strong association between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.”

In the majority of instances, NIDA reported, the substance abuse occurs after the trauma and resultant PTSD, which the agency says is consistent with the belief that PTSD is a risk factor for the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. The problem appears to be particularly acute among young trauma survivors, whose PTSD puts them at increased risk for abusing drugs later in life, NIDA advised.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a person has survived or witnessed a traumatic, horrific, or otherwise devastating experience (such as sexual or physical abuse, military combat,  terrorist attack, or natural disaster). Historically, PTSD was recognized as an aftereffect of military combat, but in recent years the definition of the disorder has been expanded to address people who have survived or witness a much wider range of traumatic events.

Feelings of impending death or the realization that the lives of others may be in immediate danger during the event can lead to the development of PTSD, which has been known to significantly impact a person’s mental health and ability to function as a productive member of a group, family, or community.

Individuals who suffer from PTSD may experience feelings of despair, confusion, and anger, as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea. The disorder may manifest itself through mood swings, sudden violent outbursts, feelings of fear, or a state of psychological numbness. As NIDA and other organizations have noted, PTSD sufferers are at increased risk for turning to alcohol and other drugs as a means of self-medicating their pain (or inability to feel pain) – a behavior that can exacerbate rather than minimize the damage that has already been endured or inflicted.

Getting Help for PTSD, Substance Abuse, & Addiction

Identifying and properly addressing co-occurring disorders is an essential component of an effective treatment program for substance abuse, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

Medical personnel and other health care providers who are treating patients with PTSD should be aware of the fact that the disorder puts people at increased risk for substance abuse. Conversely, recovery specialists should explore whether a person’s dependence upon alcohol or other drugs has resulted from a traumatic experience.

According to information on the website of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a variety of approaches have proved to be successful in the treatment of PTSD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been particularly effective, the VA reports, as has eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (a relatively new psychotherapeutic approach that was developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1987) and the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Some of these approaches (for example, cognitive-behavioral therapy in most cases, and the use of antidepressant medications when deemed appropriate) have also proved to be effective means of helping a person overcome substance abuse or addiction. Most drug and alcohol rehabilitation and recovery programs feature therapy and counseling that is conducted in individual, group, and family settings, and most are also able to prescribe necessary medications to those who can benefit from them.

The VA advises that treatment plans for those who are suffering from both substance abuse and PTSD should include the following components:

  • The initial interview and questionnaire assessment should include questions that sensitively and thoroughly identify patterns of past and current alcohol and drug use.
  • Treatment planning should include a discussion between the professional and the client about the possible effects of alcohol use problems on PTSD, sleep, anger and irritability, anxiety, depression, and work or relationship difficulties.
  • Treatment should include education, therapy, and support groups that help the client address alcohol use problems in a manner acceptable to the client.
  • Treatment for PTSD and alcohol use problems should be designed as a single consistent plan that addresses both sources of difficulty together.

Separately, PTSD and substance abuse can each pose considerable obstacles. When they occur together, the challenge may appear to be insurmountable – but recovery is possible, and a healthier and happier future is achievable.

If you or someone you love is struggling to overcome a problem with substance abuse that is related to post-traumatic stress disorder, call 866-323-5608 to have a confidential conversation with a counselor who can help you find the treatment program that is best suited to meeting your unique needs.