PTSD and Addiction: A Guide For Getting Help

PTSD and Addiction Link

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders (SUD) are two conditions that often co-occur. When they occur together, these two disorders are more challenging to treat than either disorder alone. Comorbid PTSD and addiction are associated with a more complicated treatment course, an increased rate of physical health problems, higher suicide rates, an increased risk of violence, and more legal problems. People battling both PTSD and addiction are also less likely to adhere to treatment and require more specialized treatment for good outcomes. We explore why PTSD frequently co-occurs with addiction and why concurrent treatment of both conditions is so important.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that develops after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. The event could involve an actual or perceived danger or risk of serious injury or death. PTSD is characterized by symptoms in which the person re-experiences the trauma, for example, through flashbacks or nightmares, becomes emotionally numb and detached from friends and family, and experiences hyperarousal (suddenly goes into high alert in the absence of any real danger).

Addiction Is More Likely In Those With PTSD

Research has shown that individuals with PTSD are up to 4 times more likely than individuals without PTSD to meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. Among people with PTSD, nearly half also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. One in five people with PTSD has substance dependence.

Whereas patients with PTSD have a significantly higher likelihood of having a substance use disorder, the converse is also true. Patients seeking SUD treatment have PTSD prevalence rates of 30-60%. In particular, veterans are at high risk of developing both PTSD and addiction. Studies in Iraq veterans, for example, have shown a 27% prevalence of alcohol abuse, with the odds increasing dramatically in correlation with the severity of combat exposure.  

PTSD and Addiction Are Commonly Linked

Experts believe that the main reason PTSD leads to addiction is self-medication. People battling PTSD symptoms often attempt to alleviate their symptoms with drugs and alcohol. When presented with cues that are reminiscent of the trauma, such individuals turn towards depressant or stimulant substances, depending on their PTSD symptoms.

What further complicates the picture is that many of the symptoms of drug withdrawal mimic symptoms of PTSD, such as difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbance, irritability, and detachment. The appearance of these symptoms reinforces the cycle of self-medication in people with co-occurring addiction and PTSD. Although either disorder can occur first, in the majority of people, the development of PTSD is followed by the development of addiction, which supports the self-medication theory.

Another theory is that substance abuse develops first. The lifestyle of substance users and their high-risk behaviors puts them in dangerous environments, for example, while obtaining drugs, and it, therefore, increases the likelihood that they will experience a traumatic event and subsequently develop PTSD.

A third theory is that substance abuse leads to increased anxiety and hyperarousal and is also associated with poor coping skills, making drug and alcohol users more vulnerable to PTSD compared to non-substance users.

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Recognizing PTSD and Addiction

It can be difficult for loved ones to recognize co-occurring PTSD and addiction in a friend or family member. Many people with PTSD hide their drug or alcohol use because of guilt or shame. If someone you know is battling PTSD and shows signs of drug addiction, you should not delay getting help. Suicidal thoughts are one of the more dangerous symptoms of PTSD, and drug and alcohol abuse can intensify these thoughts.

How To Get Help For PTSD and Drug Addiction

PTSD and addiction both have a deep impact on the brain. It is essential to treat both disorders simultaneously to undo the damage caused by drugs and alcohol and treat the symptoms of PTSD. Dual diagnosis drug rehab centers specialize in treating patients with mental health disorders like PTSD who have also developed a dependency on illicit drugs, prescription medications, or alcohol abuse.

Successful treatment involves a combination of pharmacological therapy with medicines like antidepressants, behavioral therapies with modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy, and co-curricular activities like physical exercise, art therapy, music therapy, yoga, meditation, etc. 

Trauma-Informed Addiction Treatment at Discover Recovery

At Discover Recovery Treatment Center in Washington State, we use a combination of psychoactive medications and behavioral therapies to successfully treat co-occurring PTSD and addiction. During our trauma-informed addiction treatment program, clients learn skills to overcome the psychological fallouts of PTSD such as disconnection, detachment, emotional numbness, and hyperarousal. CBT and other psychotherapies are used to address distortions in thinking that can occur with both PTSD and addiction.

Our inpatient rehab program is designed to allow clients to focus on their recovery. Our center is staffed by a highly experienced team of addiction treatment experts and mental health professionals who understand the mental strain and physical demands of addiction and PTSD.

If someone you love is battling PTSD and showing signs of addiction, it is imperative to get help as soon as possible. The sooner treatment is started, the higher the chances of success and long-term recovery. With the help and support of the staff at Discover Recovery Treatment Center, an addiction-free life and control of PTSD symptoms are possible.


  1. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders: Advances in Assessment and Treatment. Jenna L McCauley, Ph.D., Therese Killeen, Ph.D., A.P.R.N., […], and Sudie E. Back, Ph.D. Source
  2. Brady, K. T., Back, S. E., & Coffey, S. F. (2004). Substance abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder. Current Directions in Psychological Science,13(5), 206-209. Source
  3. Joseph Volpicelli, M.D., Ph.D.; Geetha Balaraman; Julie Hahn; Heather Wallace, M.A.; and Donald Bux, Ph.D. The Role of Uncontrollable Trauma in the Development of PTSD and Alcohol Addiction.  (1999). Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 23, No. 4, pgs 256-262. Source
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Trauma-Informed Approach and Trauma-Specific Interventions. Retrieved at Source

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