PTSD and addiction

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction are two mental health disorders that can occur at the same time and cause enormous damage to a person’s physical, emotional and mental health. The severity of these conditions varies widely from person to person, but while the symptoms of each may be different, they often overlap and interact. It’s important to understand how this happens and what assistance is available so that a person can get the help they need as soon as possible.

In this page, we will discuss the causes and symptoms of these conditions, how they often exist together and what treatment is available.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that sometimes affects people who have experienced a particularly stressful event or a prolonged period of distress. A person who is suffering from PTSD may experience various negative mental, emotional and physical health symptoms as a direct reaction to that traumatic event or period of time.

Different people have different reactions to extreme stress and emotion, and most people who experience a traumatic event never develop PTSD. However, for those who do, PTSD can make life incredibly difficult and can lead to various other mental health problems if left untreated.

What kind of traumatic event can cause PTSD?

Trauma can be caused by a single traumatic event or ongoing exposure to continuous traumatic events such as those witnessed or experienced when fighting a war. During the First World War, PTSD (or “shell shock” as it was known at the time) was incredibly common, while one recent study of 60,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans found that 13.5% had PTSD symptoms.

In addition to war, other terrifying events and traumatic experiences have been shown to have led to PTSD. One study into the effects of the 2004 Tsunami that devastated many parts of South East Asia found that 57.3% of those affected showed PTSD symptoms a few weeks after the event, while 2.7% were still suffering from PTSD five years later.

People who experience a personally traumatic or terrifying event rather than a natural disaster are also at risk of developing PTSD and other mental health problems. This may be a car crash, an assault or the death of a family member, but they can all lead to increased risk factors.

Why traumatic events have such a lasting impact on people is still being questioned. Studies suggest that PTSD results from a combination of survival instincts, changes to brain chemistry and adrenaline overload.

What are the common PTSD symptoms?

There are various mental, emotional and physical symptoms associated with PTSD. When someone experiences a traumatic event, their body goes into fight-or-flight mode, which prepares them to fight off an attacker or run away. This state of heightened alertness continues long after the actual danger has passed because people’s memories form strong associations around what happened.

These memories can be triggered when something in a person’s current life reminds them of what they’ve experienced. For example, a victim of sexual assault may panic whenever anyone touches their shoulder. This fear might become so generalised that simply seeing an open door or hearing footsteps can cause them to be easily startled.

People with PTSD also often have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares and frightening thoughts. If left untreated, these feelings can lead to suicidal thoughts, substance abuse as a coping mechanism and various other psychological and physical effects.

How is PTSD treated?

PTSD treatment has three main aims: to improve symptoms, teach coping strategies and restore self-esteem. Treatment options vary depending on the traumatic experience that triggered the condition, its severity and how far along the condition is, but will often involve a combination of medication and different psychotherapy strategies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These treatments can help people to view their condition in a different way and find more effective ways of coping with their symptoms.

What is addiction?

Addiction occurs when someone has an overwhelming desire to use a particular substance or engage in a potentially harmful activity despite the negative consequences to their health, relationships and happiness. Some individuals develop one specific problem such as drug abuse, while others may experience problems with multiple addictions at once. Addiction can affect anyone from all walks of life regardless of age, gender or race, although some groups are more at risk for addiction or experience certain addictions more than others.

What causes addiction?

The causes of addiction are complex and varied. For some people, addiction develops from excessive substance use as a way of coping with difficult feelings like stress, anxiety or depression. When a person uses alcohol or other drugs, it creates an artificial feeling of well-being which can help them forget about their problems, even if only temporarily.

Genetics and environmental factors can also play a significant role in a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction. For example, if you have blood relatives who suffer from addiction, then it may be a sign of a genetic predisposition towards addiction.

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What are co-occurring mental health disorders?

A person with PTSD and an addiction has what is known as a co-occurring disorder, also referred to as dual diagnosis mental illness. This means that they are struggling with symptoms of two mental disorders simultaneously: in this case, PTSD and addiction.

Having PTSD alone does not necessarily mean that a person is at higher risk of developing addiction, but it can make recovery more difficult. This is because experiencing a traumatic event can change how people deal with stress and anxiety in their lives, leading to an increased vulnerability towards substance use disorders. This is especially true for those who have other mental health issues, such as depression.

How does a person with PTSD develop an addiction?

People who suffer from PTSD may start engaging in drug and alcohol use to help them sleep or to silence negative thoughts. It may seem easier, and in many cases cheaper, to self-medicate than it is to go and get professional help for PTSD. Eventually, this substance misuse in tandem with the underlying mental health issues can trigger addiction, with the two disorders feeding off one another.

What are the warning signs?

There are many warning signs to look out for if you think somebody might be dealing with both PTSD and addiction at once, including social isolation, changes in personality, problems functioning due to substance use, mood swings, unexplainable injuries, or behaviour such as borrowing or stealing money. These behaviours could indicate the individual is struggling with PTSD, addiction or both.

It is important that family members understand that addiction is not a choice and that while ultimately we are all responsible for our actions, those who develop PTSD and addiction disorders can find self-control very difficult.

What is life like for someone with both disorders?

Many people who are dealing with trauma/PTSD and addiction at once find it difficult to stop using the substances or processes they turn to for relief due to their low moods or painful memories triggering cravings. This means that treating one of these issues without addressing the other is often ineffective in helping the person recover fully.

Some of the risk that people with addiction and PTSD face relates specifically to what substances they use. For instance, some drugs like opioids provide relief from pain along with feelings of euphoria, relaxation or sedation but can also cause huge physical harm and even death.

How are addiction and PTSD treated?

An effective treatment plan for PTSD and addiction as co-occurring conditions requires a holistic approach. Addiction treatment depends on what type of substance the person is dependent on, how long they have been using it and the extent of the withdrawal symptoms they experience during detox.

The safest place to receive treatment is always at a specialist rehabilitation centre which can provide a safe environment for people to recover, as well as access to medical supervision and support if necessary.

Many of the programmes designed to help people with addiction are also effective in helping to support those with PTSD and other mental disorders. Treatments such as exposure therapy and CBT can help people to cope with the symptoms of PTSD so that they are able to complete everyday activities and live happier lives. This is particularly important, as their previous coping mechanism (substance use) will no longer be available.

What does addiction treatment involve?

At UKAT, we take a completely holistic view of addiction treatment, and our programmes are designed to address both the physical side of addiction through our detox programme and the underlying mental and emotional causes (such as PTSD). In our rehabs for veterans, we provide a mixture of different therapies and addiction treatment approaches in an environment where both staff and the other clients become one large support network.

After their stay in rehab, our clients often join one of the many organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous that provide support for those in recovery. We also provide our own support groups made up of UKAT Alumni. This helps to prevent relapses during difficult moments, such as when the memory of a traumatic event is triggered.

What withdrawal symptoms can occur during alcohol and drug addiction treatment?

There are various symptoms of withdrawal that a person may experience, including:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • appetite changes
  • insomnia or other sleep problems
  • diarrhoea, stomach cramps and aches
  • unpleasant physical sensations

In some cases, more severe withdrawal symptoms may occur, so we fully assess every client before they begin their detox. If our medical professionals are concerned the client will develop severe symptoms, they may be given special detox medication and kept under 24/7 supervision to ensure that they are safe and comfortable during the process.

While the reasons that a traumatic event can have such a negative impact on a person’s health and well-being still need further research, the link between post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction is well established. If you need help with addiction or you have started self-medicating to ease your PTSD symptoms, contact us today so we can give you more information about the help available.

Call us now for help
+44 2039 496 584