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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Abuse

Table of Contents

Rehab Treatment for PTSD and Substance Abuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that might occur in individuals who have witnessed some traumatic event. It’s extremely common in military veterans, as well as US Latinos, American Indians, and African Americans. What many people don’t know is that PTSD and substance abuse are strongly related.1,2,3

A high percentage of people suffering from substance use disorder (SUD) also have issues with their mental health. Co-occurring problems are quite common, especially in specific groups that are at a higher risk. This is why a dual treatment approach is important since it addresses both PTSD and SUD.4

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD occurs after an individual has lived through or witnessed some stressful, distressing, or frightening event. These can range from personal assaults and severe road accidents to health problems or even childbirth experiences. PTSD can develop immediately after the person has experienced this event or even years later.1

While there are many symptoms of PTSD that will vary from person to person, most individuals have reported experiencing:3  

  • Intrusive memories.
  • Avoidance of the stressful event.
  • Drastic changes in thinking or mood.
  • Changes in emotional reactions.
  • Insomnia.

Most people that start experiencing symptoms of PTSD from abuse may also relive the traumatic event, either through flashbacks or nightmares. These symptoms can be severe enough to impact the individual’s everyday life.1 

What Is the Relationship Between PTSD and Substance Abuse?

There is a complex relationship between SUD and PTSD. In fact, studies have shown that more than one in 10 military veterans who have sought medical care also meet the criteria for SUD. The risk increases for people who have had combat exposure, combat-related injuries, and multiple deployments.5,6  

People looking for help in post-traumatic stress disorder treatment centers have 14 times greater chances of being diagnosed with SUD. This is usually because PTSD sufferers are looking to self-medicate, so they resort to alcohol and drugs in hopes of nulling the PTSD symptoms.7

Additionally, some military veterans who abuse drugs or, more commonly, alcohol, have tendencies to have co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety or depression.8 

Relationship Between PTSD and Alcoholism

PTSD and alcohol abuse are tightly connected. Research done on PTSD and substance abuse comorbidity has shown that about three-quarters of people who’ve survived abuse or violence have reported also experiencing drinking problems.2

This connection is also noticed in trauma and substance abuse statistics. For example, in 2015, about 30% of service members had issues with binge drinking. Binge drinking is when a person drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short time span. In comparison, 24.7% of all adults in the U.S. are binge drinkers.8

Relationship Between PTSD and Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana is the most common illicit drug used among veterans. In fact, 3.5% of veterans have reported using marijuana. From 2002 to 2009, reported cases of cannabis use disorders among veterans have increased by more than 50%. This is likely due to the claims that marijuana might help calm a person experiencing PTSD symptoms.5

Effects of Substance Abuse on PTSD Symptoms

A great number of people suffering from both PTSD and substance abuse think that, by abusing drugs or binge drinking, they’ll be able to cope with their trauma or mitigate its symptoms. However, addictive substances tend to make these symptoms worse.2

By abusing drugs and alcohol, individuals are at risk of increasing their PTSD symptoms, as well as symptoms of other mental illnesses, such as depression. Some symptoms that tend to get worse include:2

  • Feeling of numbness.
  • Feeling of loneliness.
  • Feeling irritable and angry.
  • Feeling anxious.
  • Feeling as if you’re always on guard.

Statistics on PTSD and Drug Abuse

Trauma and substance abuse statistics showcase how prevalent it is for trauma and substance abuse to go hand in hand. In general:10

  • More than 75% of military veterans who suffer from PTSD also suffer from SUD.
  • 1 in 3 veterans (around 33%) who are looking for treatment for SUD also has PTSD.
  • 6 in 10 veterans who smoke have PTSD, compared to 3 in 10 veterans who smoke and don’t have PTSD.
  • 1 in 10 returning veterans from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have problems with drug or alcohol abuse.
  • About 50% of people in inpatient substance abuse treatment also have PTSD.
  • Nearly 80% of women seeking substance abuse treatment have lifetime histories of sexual or physical assault.

Treatment Options for Drug and Alcohol Addiction and PTSD 

Many individuals don’t know how to recover from PTSD and depression and other co-occurring disorders. Fortunately, there are many treatment options for people struggling with both of these issues.11 

The first step should always be diagnosis and assessment. Then, depending on the severity and type of health problems, a struggling individual might get some of these treatments:11, 12

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): A special kind of CBT developed for people with traumatic experiences. Patients learn how to change the distorted self-cognitions that are the result of trauma.
  • Dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT): During it, patients learn to regulate emotions and tolerate stress.
  • Prolonged exposure therapy: This treatment is based on exposing a patient to safe but feared stimuli related to trauma.
  • Dual recovery programs: These programs are needed after a patient gets a dual diagnosis. They help individuals battle both mental health and SUD-related problems.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR): During EMDR, patients have an external stimulus while focusing on a traumatic event. 

Some treatment facilities may be more experienced in treating those with PTSD than others, so it’s important to find the right one for you.

Once you’ve addressed your issues with SUD, you’ll likely still have to learn how to cope with the symptoms of PTSD. This will help you prevent relapse. Therefore, the right type of treatment for substance abuse and trauma will typically help you deal with both issues.2

Why Is PTSD and Substance Abuse Rehab Treatment Important? 

Having PTSD and SUD together can worsen an individual’s quality of life. This is why it’s important to get adequate trauma and substance abuse treatment at the same time. Finding the right rehab for PTSD can help you return to your normal, healthy life and increase your chance of recovery.2

A well-planned treatment for substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder should deal with both problems in a way that is suitable for each individual. Sometimes, going to separate meetings is necessary to help you get better.2

How to Get Help for PTSD and Drug Addiction

The best way to get help for PTSD and SUD is to find a rehab facility in your area that will help you by providing you with the right therapy and medicine for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. 

Most insurance providers, especially those that offer services to the veterans, will cover some or all expenses of rehab. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is in contact with a large number of recognized insurance carriers. By giving AAC a call, you can learn more about the admission process and insurance coverage options

If you aren’t sure whether your insurance covers your rehab expenses, the AAC admissions team can help by verifying your insurance coverage. Simply fill out the form to find out whether you are covered.

Frequently Asked Questions

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  1. The National Health Service. (2018). Overview – Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). PTSD: National Center for PTSD. PTSD and Problems with Alcohol Use.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2020). What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS): 2005-2015.
  5. Teeters, J.B., Lancaster, C.L., Brown, D.G., & Back, S.E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation. 8, 69-77. doi:10.2147/SAR.S116720.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Military Life and Substance Use.
  7. McCauley, J. L., Killeen, T., Gros, D. F., Brady, K. T., & Back, S. E. (2012). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders: Advances in Assessment and Treatment. Clinical psychology: a publication of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association, 19(3), 10.1111/cpsp.12006.
  8. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). Substance Use Disorder.
  9. Meadows, S. O., Engel, C. C., Collins, R. L., Beckman, R. L., Cefalu, M., Hawes-Dason, J., Waymouth, M., Kress, A.M., Sontag-Padilla, L., Ramchand, R., et al. (2018). Substance Use Among U.S. Active-Duty Service Members. 2015 Health Related Behaviors Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. RB-9955/7-OSD
  10. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.
  11. Lewis-Schroeder, N. F., Kieran, K., Murphy, B. L., Wolff, J. D., Robinson, M. A., Kaufman, M.L. (2019). Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment of Traumatic Stress in First Responders: A Review of Critical Issues. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2018;26(4):216-227. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000176. 
  12. Foa, E.B., Keane, T.M., Friedman, M.J., Cohen, J.A. (2008). Effective treatments for PTSD: practice guidelines from the international society for traumatic stress studies. 2nd ed New York: Guilford
  13. Khoury, L., Tang, Y. L., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. F., Ressler, K. J. (2010). Substance Use, Childhood Traumatic Experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an Urban Civilian Population. Depress Anxiety. 27(12): 1077–1086. doi:  10.1002/da.20751 
  14. De Bellis. (2002). Developmental traumatology: a contributory mechanism for alcohol and substance use disorders. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 27(1-2):155-70.
  15. Schafer, I., Najavits, L.M. (2007). Clinical Challenges in the Treatment of Patients with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Abuse. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 20(6):614-618
  16. CHADD. (2016). Can ADHD & PTSD Occur Together?

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