You’ve probably come across the term “PTSD” before, but what does it mean? PTSD is short for post-traumatic stress disorder – a chronic anxiety disorder resulting from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.
This event could be something like a natural disaster, a car accident, a hostage situation, or physical/sexual assault. PTSD can cause a range of symptoms, including intrusive memories or flashbacks of the event, nightmares, sleep problems, irritability, outbursts of anger, hypervigilance (constantly feeling on edge), and poor cognition.
It’s estimated that nearly 8 million adults in the US have PTSD. PTSD can profoundly affect your life, making it hard to continue with day-to-day activities or maintain healthy relationships.
PTSD and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorder
People with PTSD often have a hard time returning to their everyday lives and may feel detached or estranged from family and friends. They may turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate and numb their feelings.
This can lead to developing a substance use disorder (SUD). Substance use disorder is defined as a problematic pattern of using alcohol or drugs that leads to clinically significant impairment or distress.
Nearly 50 percent of people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder also have a substance use problem. Research also shows that people with PTSD are 14 times more likely to develop a substance use problem at some point in their lives than those without PTSD.
For many people, PTSD and substance use can become a vicious cycle. The symptoms of PTSD can make it difficult to cope with everyday stress, which may lead to substance abuse as a way of self-medicating.
But once these substances wear off, they are followed by a withdrawal period that intensifies anxiety and stress. This brings up the need to “self-medicate” again, creating a vicious cycle leading to addiction.
Effects of Substance Use in PTSD Patients
Substance use can have several harmful effects on people with PTSD, including:
Interference with PTSD Treatment
If you have PTSD and SUD, it’s essential to seek treatment for the two conditions. Unfortunately, substance abuse can make it difficult to effectively treat PTSD.
This is because substance use can interfere with the brain’s ability to process and store memories, making it more challenging to work through the trauma in therapy.
Additionally, people with substance use problems are more likely to drop out of treatment prematurely, further hindering their progress in recovery.
Aggravating PTSD Symptoms
Substance use can also aggravate the symptoms of PTSD, making them more challenging to manage. For example, alcohol abuse has been linked to increased intrusive thoughts and nightmares. It can also lead to poorer sleep quality and reduced quality of life.
Increases Risk for Retraumatization
People with PTSD and substance use disorders are also at a higher risk for retraumatization. This is because they may be more likely to put themselves in situations where they are exposed to danger or harm.
For example, someone with PTSD who abuses alcohol may be more likely to visit bars or clubs, where they could be exposed to violence. Retraumatization can further complicate the treatment of PTSD and increase the risk for relapse.
Increased Risk for Depression
Individually, PTSD and substance use disorders are some of the leading causes of depression. When both conditions occur together, the likelihood of developing depression increases catastrophically.
Treating PTSD and Substance Use
An integrative treatment approach is often necessary to effectively treat both PTSD and substance abuse. This type of approach is designed to help you process the psychological and emotional damage caused by trauma, while also providing you with the tools you need to overcome substance use and establish a sober lifestyle.
If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD or substance use, seek help from a qualified professional as soon as possible. There is no shame in seeking help, and early treatment can make a big difference in your recovery.