Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that stems from having witnessed or experienced a violent, frightening, or shocking traumatic event. Someone who has experienced a trauma and is unable to overcome its effects after a month’s time may be diagnosed with PTSD.
One of the lingering negative effects associated with PTSD is substance use. Individuals with PTSD often struggle with depression and anxiety, among other adverse symptoms of the disorder, and are prone to self-medicating with a substance. Over time, as tolerance builds and consumption increases, a substance use disorder can take hold.
The links between drug misuse, alcoholism and PTSD or is described in an article published in Current Psychiatry Reports [Berenz and Coffey]. According to the authors, approximately 50% of those receiving treatment for a substance use disorder meet diagnostic criteria for co-occurring PTSD.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health disorder that features four primary cluster symptoms — re-experiencing, avoidance, mood and cognition, and hyper-arousal. The disorder is brought on after experiencing or witnessing a startling or life-altering event, such as:
- A violent assault, physical or sexual
- Sudden death of a loved one
- A serious auto or airplane accident
- Terrorist attack
- Combat stress
- A serious medical diagnosis
- A natural disaster
Someone who lives through a traumatic event is left with feelings of helplessness and fear. Generally, people are fairly resilient and utilize their coping skills to overcome the effects of the trauma and move forward with life. Those with PTSD may “get stuck” and dwell on the trauma, reliving it through nightmares or triggers that paralyze the individual with fear, dread, depression, and anxiety for a prolonged period.
The diagnostic criteria for PTSD includes:
- A minimum of one re-experiencing symptom, such as flashbacks, nightmares, or recurrent disturbing thoughts.
- A minimum of one avoidance symptom, such as avoiding places, events, or things that remind the individual of the trauma, or attempts to block thoughts and feelings related to the trauma.
- A minimum of two arousal and reactivity symptoms, such as being easily startled, feeling tense or on edge, angry outbursts, or sleep disturbances.
- A minimum of two cognition and mood symptoms, such as trouble recalling the details of the traumatic event, negative thoughts, irrational feelings of blame or guilt, and loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed.
The Connection Between PTSD and Substance Use
Those individuals who experience a highly traumatic event may initiate unhealthy coping strategies. As a result, some of these individuals may find themselves turning to a substance to help relieve the ongoing emotional pain they live with. Someone with PTSD may have actual impairments in the brain’s limbic system that can essentially hijack the reward system. The limbic region is where impulsivity, decision-making, and other executive functions occur. When these functions are disrupted, compulsive use of a substance and impulsivity can result.
Addressing Mental Health in Addiction Treatment
Co-occurring substance use disorder and PTSD is considered a dual diagnosis. Regardless which disorder appeared first, it is imperative to address and treat both disorders simultaneously to achieve a lasting recovery. A dual diagnosis program will provide the clinical addiction recovery elements for treating the substance use disorder plus psychiatric support for PTSD-related therapies.
In addition to the psychotherapies, group therapies, 12-step program, and medical support, holistic therapies are also beneficial for individuals recovering from both PTSD and a substance issue. These might include mindfulness meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and art therapy. This comprehensive approach for treating PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorder helps heal the whole person, mind, body, and spirit.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.