PTSD and Addiction

PTSD addiction

One of the most common pairings in substance abuse is PTSD and addiction. Recent studies show that 50-66 percent of those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder are also struggling with drug abuse and addiction. In fact, those struggling with PTSD(Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) are up to four times more likely to also struggle with addiction. Since PTSD can be so debilitating, it’s easy to see why this would be the case. If someone is struggling with past traumas and anxiety, they may turn to drugs or alcohol in order to lessen or numb the pain you’re experiencing.

What is a Dual Diagnosis?

When someone is diagnosed with both a substance abuse disorder and a mental health issue, it is termed a dual diagnosis. This is a very important part of the recovery process as it is very difficult to treat only part of the problem and expect full recovery. Some of the more common mental health disorders that can be found in tandem with drug addiction are: anxiety and mood disorders, personality disorders, depression and schizophrenia. More often than not, symptoms of mental illness and stress will be apparent first. As the severity of these signs and symptoms increase, substance abuse will increase.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a form of mental illness that will affect around 7-8 people out of 100. There are many causes for PTSD. Typically, it comes about as a result of a life-threatening or traumatic moment in someone’s life. Anytime someone feels like they are powerless or out of control as a result of mental or physical trauma may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD affects people differently depending on the trauma. For instance, if you were a soldier in combat, you may experience flashbacks involving a traumatic event that has not been fully resolved. If you were the victim of abuse as a child, you may exhibit mood symptoms or avoid situations that remind you of the traumatic event. These moments can make a person feel helpless. As such, it’s possible they’ve caused some long lasting trauma and have not yet been resolved.

What are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD are classified into these groups:

  • Re-experiencing: flashbacks, nightmares, etc.
  • Cognition and mood symptoms: issues with self image, apathy or feelings of guilt.
  • Avoidance: keeping away from anything resembling the traumatic event.
  • Arousal and reactivity: difficulties sleeping, outbursts, etc.

Sexual abuse and combat are among some of the more common catalysts for post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also important to note that it is sometimes difficult to diagnose PTSD.

Sometimes, it is difficult to understand one’s diagnosis due to the way certain signs appear to an outside party. Those experiencing symptoms may either under- or over-report their symptoms. There are a number of reasons for under-reporting. It could be the stigma someone feels being diagnosed with PTSD. Perhaps, they feel it will make it difficult to find work or develop certain relationships. If someone is over-reporting, it could be that they’re looking to seek disability benefits or get out of some sort of trouble. However, it’s important to note that we should always take it seriously when someone expresses how they feel and to take their word. Other reasons include PTSD being confused with a different mental disorder related to depression or anxiety. Also, if someone has developed an addiction, it’s possible an outside eye will blame the substance abuse while forgetting to focus on the PTSD.

How PTSD and Addiction are Related

Stress causes people to try to escape. Whether it be the stresses from work, relationships or past trauma, the feeling of escape can be a comfort. Many find this comfort in drugs and alcohol. What starts out as recreational use turns into addiction. This is where dual diagnosis comes in. After doing their best to escape the pains of day to day stress and past traumas, they now have the added stress of addiction. While these escapes may seem helpful for a time, the additional trauma related to addiction and abuse only amplifies the pains of day to day life.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (or, GABA) is a natural tranquilizer that is created in the brain, and dopamine is a chemical that tells your brain to feel happy. GABA levels decrease during times of stress. When GABA levels decrease and adrenaline levels increase, substances like alcohol and opioids are used to quiet the central nervous system. These substances also raise your dopamine levels. However, when the substance wears off, dopamine levels decrease, which causes mood swings. These sudden mood swings can make you unbalanced and can make relationships and day to day life more difficult. The repeated drug will in turn make it more difficult for your brain to regulate itself. Abnormal amounts of dopamine and GABA will rise and fall causing intense cravings and further feelings of stress. This feeds the cycle of drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include depression, insomnia and stress. As the cycle takes hold, it becomes more and more difficult for someone to move beyond their drug addiction.

How these symptoms relate to post-traumatic stress disorder lies within stress. As we’ve relayed, drug abuse leads to chronic stress. This kind of stress makes it difficult for someone to control their ability to learn and adapt and can interfere with memory control. Since one of the symptoms of PTSD is flashbacks, it is clear how substance abuse can inflame someone’s PTSD.

Who Is At Risk?

Here are some of the most well known instances from which someone may develop PTSD:

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

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects those who have not resolved a past trauma. There is some overlap between those who struggle with substance abuse and PTSD. If you were raised in a stressful environment or come from a family with a history of these issues, you’re more likely to develop either of these conditions. In fact, Current Psychiatric Reports have stated that symptoms related to genetics with depression, addiction, and panic disorder share up to 60 percent of the genetic variance seen in PTSD.

How to Find Treatment

The road to recovery for those suffering from the dual diagnosis of PTSD and substance abuse  is long and requires a significant amount of support from friends, family and loved ones, as well as those providing treatment. Some may avoid treatment due to the guilt they feel over either the traumatic event that caused their PTSD or because of their addiction. Guilt can also become an addiction in itself.

Once recovery begins, the person will work with experienced mental health professionals. A psychiatric facility will likely not have the sufficient means to treat those struggling with addiction. It is very, very important that one finds the proper facility and practices to properly treat the dual diagnosis of drug abuse and PTSD.

Certain facilities will work with the patient to provide an assessment regarding the patients’ needs and their plans for recovery. This way the patient is receiving the most specialized therapy to suit their needs.


The first step for most patients struggling with drug addiction is detox. Patients will need to be free of any substances before receiving any additional treatment. Since withdrawal is so severe during this period, it’s best if medical detox is available. These centers allow for patients to stay for several days under care and supervision in a secure space. Between the supportive staff and medical treatment, patients are in the best possible hands to help them through this difficult phase of recovery.

A medical doctor may recommend pharmacological options to be used with other therapeutic behavioral techniques. These techniques can assuage symptoms like depression and stress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also be used to help a patient better handle the different triggers and stresses of day to day life. They can also help raise a patient’s sense of self worth. In order to help a patient resolve a traumatic event, exposure therapy may be utilized by the facility. This will help a patient confront their fear in a controlled environment. In these scenarios, patients can learn coping techniques to help them when these situations arise in the future.

When looking for the proper facilities, be sure to find a place that offers integrated care — when all the proper resources needed for treatment are found in one central location. These facilities should include the following:

  • Counseling sessions with those who are also suffering from the same dual diagnosis
  • 12-step program
  • Medication therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Dual Diagnosis practices and treatment
  • Holistic therapy

Blu By the Sea

If you’re in the area of Destin, FL and you or someone you know is struggling with the dual diagnosis of PTSD and addiction, call Blu By the Sea at 850-331-7528. Our team is ready to help you or your loved one get started on their road to recovery.