What Is the Relationship Between PTSD and Addiction?

a man is grieving

Many people are aware that trauma can have a long-lasting negative impact on people’s physical and mental health. The effects of some traumas can linger for a lifetime. Did you know people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are three times more likely to develop substance use disorder? Yes, trauma and substance abuse can form a vicious cycle. Mental issues like PTSD and addiction can become co-occurring conditions that are hard to overcome. Understanding how these two conditions are related is the first step when considering treatment.

In recent years, trauma-informed addiction treatment has become a more common term. A trauma-informed approach acknowledges the complicated interplay between traumatic experiences and people’s physical and mental responses. Treating these conditions often requires a holistic, multi-faceted plan. Oftentimes, staff members at treatment facilities have experienced trauma or addiction themselves so they can put themselves in the shoes of those they’re helping. All members of the recovery community—those recovering, friends and family, even therapists and clinicians—need to become more educated about trauma-informed treatment and care.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by a traumatic experience. Common traumas include military combat, sexual abuse, car accidents, or natural disasters. For children, exposure to chronic abuse, neglect, violence, discrimination, and other adverse social experiences can also be considered traumatic. When people who suffered from trauma enter society, they often experience acute symptoms of maladjustment. People who have suffered trauma may have flashbacks and nightmares of the event. Things like loud, sudden noises and having their personal space invaded may trigger emotional and physical reactions. These involuntary changes are accompanied by visible behavioral changes such as outbursts of anger, insomnia or sleep difficulties, emotional flatness, distrust and fear toward relationships, and depression. 

People living with PTSD often feel out of touch with reality or feel helpless because their central nervous system is constantly on high alert. Because they were imprinted by trauma, the perception of threat is constant and they may find it hard to rest. As a result, PTSD sufferers may develop chronic fatigue and clinical depression. Some may actively seek drugs and alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety. Substance abuse can compound PTSD, launching them into self-destructive patterns or harmful behaviors to themselves and others.

What Happens When PTSD Becomes Co-occurring with Addiction?

People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder may resort to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Although many try to ease PTSD symptoms by using substances, they often find the opposite to be true—the PTSD stays and they must now deal with addiction as well. Because both can be intense on the nervous system, the combination of these two conditions can become devastating and must be treated simultaneously.

Treating only one of these conditions while allowing the other to continue is likely to trigger relapses. Many people who have PTSD and addiction tend to have a long relapse history because of failure to treat both conditions simultaneously. This also means that a person needs trauma-informed addiction care which takes into account mental, emotional, and physical illness.

What Is Trauma-Informed Treatment?

Trauma-informed care or treatment refers to clinical approaches that address and alleviate how trauma is processed in the neurological and cognitive areas of the brain. Medical researchers have proposed three core goals: to promote self-awareness of the impact of trauma in personal histories, to minimize the risk of re-traumatizing the patient, and to offer trauma-informed support. More specifically, this involves creating a safe context for treatment, empowering the patient to be actively involved, and rebuilding a sense of self-worth.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma-informed addiction treatment has a few key ingredients. First, the treatment involves patients in a way that empowers them. Second, there needs to be clinical screening for trauma. Thirdly, staff members need to be trained in trauma-specific approaches. Trauma-informed treatment also relies on a system of peer support staff who have lived through traumatic experiences themselves. Peer engagement is a powerful resource to help overcome the common problem of isolation.

Some therapists use psychoactive medications to address the central nervous system’s hyper-arousal problem. A supplemental option is cognitive-behavioral therapy that seeks to correct the distortions in thinking as a result of addiction and PTSD. There are relaxation techniques that help the brain’s nervous system recuperate. Mindfulness exercises, yoga, art therapy, and distress tolerance skills can serve the purpose of soothing the central nervous system. As one can imagine, even with the best treatment plans, it takes a long time for a recovering individual to heal from the combined effects of PTSD and substance addiction.

Are you or a loved one suffering from PTSD as a co-occurring condition with substance abuse? Do you want to break free from the double impacts of past traumatic experiences and addiction? PTSD and addiction may form a vicious cycle, but you can live a trauma-free and addiction-free life. At Laguna Shores Recovery, we can help educate you or a loved one to identify PTSD and its relationship with addiction. Because many people on our staff have been in recovery themselves, we understand your struggles. You will find yourself in a safe and empowering environment here. We have a team of licensed mental healthcare professionals and therapists who can educate and counsel you. Working with trauma-informed staff, you will receive a custom trauma-informed treatment plan for you or your loved one. Our residential facility offers a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, and 12-step programs. Call us at (866) 906-3203