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The Relationship Between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can affect you after you have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. June is National PTSD Awareness Month, appropriate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused so many people to struggle and face incredibly stressful situations. Sadly, PTSD can lead to addiction to drugs or alcohol. The relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction is complicated and is often a cycle that results in what is known as a dual diagnosis.

What is PTSD

When you have experienced or witnessed an event such as a car accident, an act of violence, or a natural disaster, you may have ongoing symptoms of PTSD that can include a feeling of powerlessness or anxiety. When you have flashbacks or bad dreams about the event, trouble sleeping, and trouble functioning on a daily basis for more than a month after the traumatic event, you are experiencing PTSD.

Some of the most common causes of PTSD include:

  • Military combat
  • Violent assault
  • Natural disasters
  • Sexual assault
  • Childhood abuse

The Cycle of PTSD and Addiction

The relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction can be two-way. The symptoms of PTSD can be so severe that you turn to drugs or alcohol to try to relive them. Likewise, researchers have found that trauma-related disorders, including PTSD, occur frequently among people with substance use disorders.

Research shows a strong link between exposure to traumatic events and substance use problems. Many people who have experienced child abuse, criminal attack, disasters, war, or other traumatic events turn to alcohol or drugs to help them deal with their emotional pain, bad memories, poor sleep, guilt, shame, anxiety, or terror.

It has also been found that people with alcohol or drug use problems are more likely to experience traumatic events than those without these problems. Many people find themselves in a vicious cycle in which exposure to traumatic events produces increased alcohol and drug use, which produces new traumatic event experiences, which leads to even worse substance use, and so forth.

PTSD and Alcohol Abuse

The Veterans Administration (VA) has found that going through a trauma can lead to alcohol use problems. The agency states that up to three quarters of people who survived abuse or violent traumatic events report drinking problems. Up to a third of those who survive traumatic accidents, illness, or disaster report drinking problems. They have found that alcohol problems are more common for those who experience trauma if they have ongoing health problems or pain.

Temporary, Harmful Relief

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) emphasizes that the use of alcohol or drugs can provide a temporary distraction and relief for traumatized people who may be suffering from very serious and even debilitating problems across multiple areas of their lives (thoughts, feelings, bodily experiences, relationship to self and others, and behaviors). However, this relief is only temporary, and the use of substances to reduce symptoms ultimately can be harmful.

ISTSS stresses that substance abuse reduces a person’s ability to concentrate, to be productive in work and life in general, to sleep restfully, and to cope with traumatic memories and external stressors. Substance abuse can increase emotional numbing, social isolation, anger and irritability, depression, and the feeling of needing to be on guard (hypervigilance).

Risky Behaviors

Turning to drugs or alcohol to relieve the symptoms of PTSD is not only harmful to your health and your ability to recover from the trauma, but it can also lead to risk-taking behavior that puts you and others in even great danger. Under the influence of alcohol and other central nervous system depressants, your depression and anxiety will only worsen. In addition, when you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you are more likely to engage in dangerous activities such as driving under the influence. The combination of PTSD and addiction can impact those around you in a significant manner as well, including your friends and family members.

COVID-19 and Trauma

The current COVID-19 pandemic and its effects will undoubtedly cause many people to suffer PTSD symptoms. Those who lost their jobs, who lost loved ones to the virus, who have worked on the frontlines during the outbreak, and who have suffered the health effects of the virus themselves may be challenged with overcoming these traumatic moments.

As Dr. Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster, explains, people may be tempted to cope with the distress by engaging in various health risk behaviors, such as increasing use of alcohol, tobacco, and prescription medications. Additionally, distress can cause more family conflict and, in some cases, family violence will increase. Dr. Morganstein emphasizes that it is important to find healthier ways to cope, especially knowing the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.

Contact BRC Recovery for Help with Co-Occurring Disorders

At BRC Recovery, we see the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. Our professionals are experts in the treatment of PTSD as it co-occurs with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. We are committed to helping you with emotional growth as well as physical and mental recovery. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain open to help you in a safe, clean environment where you will receive the highest quality of care. Contact us at 1-866-461-1759 to learn more about therapeutic approaches to your PTSD and addiction.