Treating Substance Abuse that Stems from PTSD

While there are a number of treatments available to individuals struggling with PTSD, many turn to self-medicating through substance abuse. Substances such as drugs or alcohol can be used to numb the pain or, for some, to gain some semblance of control over their lives. After all, they might feel as though they can control their stress by choosing to imbibe alcohol or get high.

Unfortunately, chronic substance abuse can complicate the diagnosis of PTSD, leading to a dual diagnosis. This means the simultaneous existence of a severe psychiatric disorder and an addictive disorder. To recover from this dual diagnosis means to explore the sources of one’s PTSD as well as to treat their addictive behaviors and substance dependency.

That being said, many individuals with PTSD choose to use drugs and alcohol as a means of escaping their condition, despite the numerous health risks. It is estimated that over 50% of individuals with PTSD are also alcohol dependent, whereas over 30% of PTSD sufferers struggle with drug dependence. There is a particularly strong relationship between veterans with PTSD and SUDs (Substance Abuse Disorders). According to the National Center for PTSD, around 2 in 10 veterans with PTSD also have an SUD. Comparatively speaking, almost 1 out of every 3 veterans seeking help for an SUD also have PTSD.

Trauma Increases Risk of Substance Abuse

Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals with PTSD who also abuse substances face a variety of health risks. In addition to the physical dangers of substance abuse, there are also quite a few psychological consequences to the combination. PTSD itself can cause trouble sleeping and while substances such as drugs and alcohol may appear to help reverse these effects in the short-term, they ultimately can reduce one’s overall quality of sleep, making them feel no less fatigued.

Drugs and alcohol can also worsen the symptoms of numbness, irritability, or depression commonly associated with PTSD, as well as increase feelings of anxiety and fear. Substance abuse helps perpetuate the cycle of avoidance commonly observed in those struggling with PTSD. This cycle occurs when individuals ignore their  bad memories and dreams, and, in doing so, lengthen the duration of their PTSD. Substances like drugs and alcohol can be successful temporary distractions from real-life problems, but consequently it means that those problems never get addressed and persist in one’s life, causing them pain.

Methods of Treating PTSD and SUD

Self-medicating is never the answer. Those struggling with PTSD have several resources available to treat their condition ranging from therapy to legitimate doctor-prescribed medication if symptoms persist. However, treating PTSD and an SUD is more complex and multifaceted.   Below are some  treatment options which have been proven to be successful for PTSD  patients, as well as those who are additionally dealing with substance abuse problems:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Research shows that CBT is the most effective kind of counseling for individuals with PTSD. CBT has also been proven effective in treating those struggling with addiction. During a typical CBT session, the therapist helps their patient change how they think about their trauma and the aftermath. This means learning to understand how certain thoughts about one’s trauma may cause stress or worsen their symptoms. Such thoughts include blaming oneself for the traumatic events or feeling responsible for their distress.

The therapist helps patients realize that the trauma they lived through was not their fault. Moreover, CBT can help patients recognize the underlying causes of their addictions so that those motivations can be addressed and treated. In doing this, the patient will no longer feel as though they will need to use drugs or alcohol to treat these problems instead.

Specific Psychological Treatments (CPT, PE)

In addition to cognitive behavioral therapy there are additional, specific psychological treatments to help patients struggling with PTSD as well as addiction.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

During a session of cognitive processing therapy, or CPT, patients are taught new ways to handle their distressing thoughts as well as how to gain a better understanding of those events which caused them. They can also learn why recovering from these events has been challenging for them, and why they might have turned to substance abuse as a solution, rather than addressing the events themselves.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)

Prolonged exposure therapy, or PE, helps the individual with PTSD by approaching their trauma-related thoughts, feelings, and situations that they may have previously been avoiding, even with the use of substances. Through this repeated exposure, patients can ultimately reduce the power of these situation which cause their distress.

Behavioral Couples Therapy

Certain conditions like PTSD and substance abuse may feel isolating, but that doesn’t mean that the individual must face them alone. PTSD treatment focuses on the couple as much as it does the individual. As a result, it can help not only lessen the symptoms of PTSD but ultimately strengthen the couple’s relationship and increase their satisfaction therein.

Treating PTSD with Medication

In the event that therapy isn’t enough to treat the symptoms of comorbid PTSD and SUD, in some instances health care practitioners might prescribe medical assistance. Unlike self-medication, this intervention is regulated and carefully measured to minimize negative health consequences. When a person self-medicates rather than seeking the help of a professional, they run the risk of compromising their health even further and, eventually, developing an SUD or worse, succumbing to overdose.

PTSD is Highly Treatable

When discussing PTSD, Candice Monson, professor of psychology and director of clinical training and director of clinical training at Ryerson University in Toronto states: “PTSD is a very treatable condition, and it’s important to get help if you’re struggling.” Seeking treatment for PTSD can help reduce symptoms and lead to eventual recovery from one’s traumatic experiences.

Conversely, self-medication through substance abuse can result in a number of health risks ultimately leading to death. Substance abuse also fails to treat the underlying causes of PTSD, which means that the symptoms will persist even if they are suppressed temporarily. The best way to recover from PTSD is by seeking help and being willing to receive proper treatment. In this way, it is possible to overcome the struggle against PTSD and learn to be in control, rather than letting it control you.

Learn more about treating substance abuse that stems from PTSD by calling 844-299-0618.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a serious condition which can be debilitating for individuals who have suffered trauma or severe psychological distress. According to the National Center for PTSD, it’s fairly common to respond to traumatic events by developing upsetting memories, increased anxiety, reactiveness, or trouble sleeping. When these symptoms refuse to go away on their own, or they get worse, they are diagnosed as PTSD.

What Causes PTSD?

There are a number of events which may trigger the onset of PTSD. In order for PTSD to develop, the individual must have experienced some sort of severe trauma. A traumatic event is characterized by the experience of fear, distress, or disturbance. A person can be traumatized by things that they see, hear, or physically experience. Such occurrences which are typically considered traumatic include:

  • Sexual abuse/assault
  • Sexual or physical abuse as a child
  • Serious accidents (automotive, etc.)
  • Natural disasters (Flood, fire, tornado, hurricane, etc.)
  • Exposure to combat or similar violence.

Those in the midst of a traumatic event or circumstance may feel as though their lives (or the lives of their loved ones) are in danger. They may also feel as though they have no control over their surroundings. That being said, it’s worth noting that while some individuals may develop stress-based reactions following trauma, not everyone develops PTSD. It is only when symptoms of anxiety and stress persist or interfere with the person’s lives that the symptoms are considered indicative of PTSD.

Whether or not one develops PTSD is dependent on several factors. These include the length and duration of the trauma and whether or not the individual lost someone important to them or witnessed them get hurt. PTSD can also be triggered by the individual’s closeness to the event itself (for example, being abused by a friend or family member), how strongly they reacted to the situation, and whether or not they felt as though they were in control of what was happening. However, equally as important but, sadly, often overlooked is whether or not the individual received adequate help and support following their traumatic experiences. If they didn’t, it is more likely that they will go on to develop PTSD.

How Many People Have PTSD?

According to the National Center of PTSD, it isn’t rare to experience trauma at some point in one’s lifetime. They report that “About 6 of every 10 (or 60%) of men and 5 of every 10 (or 50%) of women experience at least one trauma in their lives.” As far as type of trauma goes, women are more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse, particularly in adolescence, when compared with men. Conversely, men are more likely to experience accidents, combat trauma, physical abuse, disaster, or pay witness to death or injury.

Statistically speaking, most people who go through trauma will not develop PTSD. That being said, the disorder is not infrequent. In fact, it is estimated that “About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.” Moreover, “About 8 million adults have PTSD during a given year. This is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma.”

Interestingly, women are more prone to developing PTSD than men, though it often goes underreported. Comparatively speaking, 10 out of every 100 (10%) women will likely develop PTSD sometime during their lifetime. On the other hand, PTSD typically occurs in about 4 out of every 100 (4%) of men.

PTSD and Military Service

The majority of PTSD sufferers, however, come from the military. This is because military service can oftentimes lead to traumatic, life-threatening experiences which can leave lasting psychological scars. That being said, the number of veterans suffering from PTSD varies depending on service era. The rates of prevalence are as follows:

Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)/Enduring Freedom (OEF)

Rates of PTSD within this group occur for about 11 to 20 out of every 100 veterans in a given year.

Desert Storm (Gulf War)

Rates of PTSD within this group occur for about 12 out of every 100 veterans in a given year.

Vietnam War

Rates of PTSD within this group occur for about 15 out of every 100 veterans, according to the most recent reports from the 1980s. This information comes from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, or NVVRS. However, the number of veterans who are believed to have suffered from PTSD at any point during their lifetimes is much larger, around 30 out of every 100 Vietnam vets.

It’s worth noting that while combat situations themselves are stressful, there are also a number of contributing factors which can ultimately lead to the development of PTSD or other mental health problems. These include the individual’s choices in combat, the politics surrounding the war, the location, and the type of adversary being faced.

However, another, lesser known cause of military-related trauma is military sexual trauma, or MST. MST describes any form of sexual harassment or sexual assault one might experience while serving in the military. MST can affect both men and women and can take place during training, war, or even peacetime. Statistically speaking, women are more likely to experience MST than men. That being said, because there are many more male veterans than female, over half of all veterans who experience MST are actually men. Even so, these events are often severely underreported. While approximately 23 out of 100 women in the military report having experienced sexual assault during service, the actual number of incidents is believed to be closer to 55%. It’s estimated that around 38 out of 100 men in service experience MST as well.


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