Co-Occurring Disorders: What is the Connection Between PTSD and Addiction?

Medically Reviewed by Peace Valley Recovery Editorial Staff,
Last Updated: January 2, 2022

Mental health conditions and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand, and this is called having a co-occurring disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a common mental illness that affects a lot of people every year. In fact, according to the United States Veterans Association, about 8% of the population will suffer from it at some point in their lives.

People who suffer from PTSD may not completely understand what they are experiencing. They may have unusual, daunting symptoms that they struggle to control. This explains why so many people with this condition gravitate toward using drugs and alcohol. Not only are they ways of escape, but they provide relief for their symptoms; at least temporarily.

Unfortunately, sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder can go undiagnosed for years. We want to help people understand PTSD, why it can lead to substance abuse and how to get help to recover.

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The Scope of Co-Occurring Disorders in the United States

Most people with drug and alcohol addictions also have mental health issues, or co-occurring disorders. Many of them may not realize it, but they are self-medicating their symptoms, which should be treated professionally.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half of those who go to rehab have co-occurring disorders. Some of the statistics they share include:

  • 7.7 million people have co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions.
  • There are 20.3 million adults with substance abuse disorders in the United States.
  • 37.9% of them also have mental health issues.
  • There are 42.1 million people in the United States with mental health conditions.
  • 18.2% of them also have substance abuse disorders.
  • 52.5% of these individuals never get any type of treatment for either their mental health or their addiction.
  • 34.5% only receive mental health treatment.
  • 3.9% of them only receive substance abuse treatment.
  • 9.1% of them never get any treatment at all.
  • More than 35% of these individuals did not get treatment because they did not know where to turn for help.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that develops in some people who suffer through a scary, dangerous or shocking event. Experiencing a traumatic event can make people feel afraid, but most people are able to resolve those feelings on their own. People who continue to experience that fear – along with a range of other symptoms – are those who typically need to be diagnosed with PTSD.

People who have PTSD may feel scared even when there is no apparent danger. They often experience triggers that remind them of the events they have experienced. When they do, they can suffer from flashbacks, which make them feel as though they are participating in that event all over again.

Symptoms of PTSD

There are several signs and symptoms that indicate that a person may be suffering from PTSD. In order to be diagnosed, they must have all of the following for at least one month:

  • One re-experiencing symptom
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least one avoidance symptoms

Re-experiencing symptoms include:

  • Having flashbacks
  • Having nightmares
  • Having frightening thoughts

Cognition and mood symptoms include:

  • Having trouble remembering important details about the traumatic event
  • Having feelings of guilt and blame
  • Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • Having problems with concentration
  • Having negative thoughts about one’s self or the world in general

Arousal and reactivity symptoms include:

  • Getting startled easily
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Having angry outbursts
  • Feeling on edge or tense most of the time

Avoidance symptoms include:

  • Staying away from places and people that bring up memories of the traumatic event
  • Staying busy to avoid thinking about the traumatic event
What Causes PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is typically caused by some type of traumatic event. But this is subjective, and what one person might find traumatizing, another person might not. Some examples of events that might lead to PTSD include:

  • Participating in military combat
  • Living through a natural disaster
  • Getting into a serious accident
  • Witnessing a terrorist attack
  • Losing a loved one
  • Being a victim of a personal assault or crime
  • Receiving a life-threatening medical diagnosis

In short, any event that causes shock, horror or feelings of fear and helplessness can cause post-traumatic stress disorder.

Common Treatments for PTSD

Common Treatments for PTSD

Over the years, researchers have found many effective ways of treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The methods that are used can vary from patient to patient based on their needs. They may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – This type of therapy focuses on helping people change their negative thoughts and feelings.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) – This type of therapy can help people change any unhelpful believes they have that are related to the traumatic event.
  • Prolonged Exposure – This type of therapy guides people as they slowly approach the memories, feelings and situations that are related to the traumatic event.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy – This is a newer type of therapy that can help people properly process their traumatic memories.
  • Medications – There are several medications that can help treat the symptoms of PTSD.

What Types of Drugs do People with PTSD Generally Use?

There is no one type of drug that is common among those who have post-traumatic stress disorder. The type of substance a person chooses is very subjective, based on their symptoms. For example, a person with PTSD might opt for:

  • Opioid drugs if they are experiencing physical pain and want a more depressed feeling because they feeling anxious.
  • Alcohol to numb the emotional pain of the traumatic event.
  • Stimulants if they feel depressed and want to find a way to lighten their mood.
  • Hallucinogens if they are trying to escape any of the symptoms that accompany PTSD.
  • Benzodiazepines to calm anxiety and give themselves a euphoric high.

What is Dual Diagnosis Treatment and How Does it Help People with Co-Occurring Disorders?

In order for addiction treatment to be effective in the long-term, it is crucial to address any co-occurring disorders. That is why dual diagnosis treatment is so important.

Dual diagnosis treatment involves treating the mental health condition and the person’s substance abuse problem simultaneously. It also helps people see the connection between the two as they progress in recovery.

Not all drug and alcohol rehab programs offer dual diagnosis treatment. But when mental health is taken into consideration and treated properly, it increases a person’s chances of being successful.

Find Out More About Co-Occurring Disorders, PTSD and Substance Abuse: Treatment is Available!

At Peace Valley Recovery, we have worked with many people who suffered from PTSD. We know the anguish it caused for them and how they struggled to cope. For them, self-medication seemed like a viable option until it no longer was. We want people to know that they can make a different choice – to get professional help for both.

Have you been thinking about getting treatment for a co-occurring disorder, such as PTSD? If so, please know that you are not alone. Help is available for you.

Would you like to know more about PTSD and addiction? Do you have questions about your treatment options? Please contact us today.