The Link Between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction

Research suggests post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and drug or alcohol addiction are strongly linked. The results of studies published by the National Library of Medicine suggest that approximately 50 percent of people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder also have a substance use disorder. Also, people diagnosed with PTSD are three times more likely to suffer from alcohol or drug addiction.

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD is a mental health condition. It is caused by experiencing or seeing a frightening event. Many people who experience a traumatic event may struggle to cope with the emotional and sometimes physical results, but their struggle is temporary. They can work through the emotions and eventually heal. However, a person may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder if they experience a traumatic event and the symptoms last for several months or years, worsen with time, and disrupt their daily activities.

What Experiences can Cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

Traumatic events can include being in war or combat, sexual or physical assault, rape, natural disasters, childhood abuse, serious accidents or health problems, or witnessing a death.

Additional examples of types of events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • The loss of a loved one, especially in a traumatic event
  • Childbirth experiences, such as losing a baby
  • Exposure to traumatic events at work, including remote exposure
  • Terrorist attack
  • Being the victim of a crime such as robbery, mugging, or kidnapping

In some cases, it can be years after the traumatic event before the person experiences the symptoms of PTSD.

What are the Symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD varies from one person to another. Some people recover in a few months, while others may have symptoms for years.

Symptoms of PTSD may include vivid flashbacks of the event, avoidance of people or conversations that remind the person of the event, being easily startled or frightened, and unwanted and recurrent memories of the event. A person may have nightmares or upsetting dreams about the event, severe anxiety, difficulty experiencing positive emotions, and a feeling of hopelessness for the future.

PTSD symptoms also may include:

  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Emotional detachment from loved ones
  • Loss of interest in things and activities they used to enjoy
  • Problems with sleeping and concentrating

A person with PTSD often feels intense distress at symbolic or real reminders of the trauma and can even experience physical sensations including pain, nausea, sweating, or trembling. They feel emotionally numb and have overwhelming feelings of shame or guilt.

The Link Between Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction

The link between PTSD and drug or alcohol addiction occurs when a person uses substances to distract or lessen the symptoms of PTSD. When a person suffers from PTSD, one of the symptoms is avoidance of all feelings and emotions related to the event. One way many people try to block out their memories and feelings is by using drugs or drinking alcohol. By disrupting their brain’s normal functioning, they are able to temporarily block thoughts, memories, and feelings of the trauma they experienced.

Over time, the substance they are using becomes less effective as their body becomes used to it. They need more drugs or alcohol to get the same effect as before. As the cycle of using and increasing their substance intake continues, their brain and body begin to crave drugs or alcohol. If they do not satisfy their need, they feel painful withdrawal symptoms and their post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms also worsen. Addiction can quickly develop.

Co-occurring Disorders: Substance Use Disorder and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

When a person has a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder at the same time, it is called a co-occurring disorder or a dual diagnosis. A person with a dual diagnosis of an addiction and PTSD has an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, irritability, or aggression. They may be self-destructive and engage in risky behavior, such as reckless driving or unprotected sex. Relationship, workplace, legal, financial, or medical problems are common.

Additional possible consequences of co-occurring PTSD and addiction include:

  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Inpatient psychiatric hospitalization
  • Suicide ideation and attempts

We Can Help

Drug or alcohol addiction is a chronic disease. It can be treated. If you or a loved one struggles with addiction, do not let it continue to ruin your life. Contact English Mountain Recovery in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. Our skilled professionals will give you the care you need as they guide you along the path to recovery. At English Mountain, we offer gender-specific treatment services for emotional, physical, and spiritual healing.