PTSD and Addiction

The Link Between PTSD and Addiction

The deep-seated emotional effects of having experienced a life-altering trauma will often result in the use of coping techniques to help soothe the pain.  Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a particularly difficult journey, as the pain and suffering connected to the traumatic event or events lingers, often causing debilitating anxiety and depression that can result in using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. The link between PTSD and addiction is a common one.  In fact, according to a 2012 article published in Current Psychiatry Reports [Berenz and Coffey], approximately half of those receiving treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction meet diagnostic criteria for co-occurring PTSD.

About PTSD

When someone is exposed to a shocking, dangerous, or frightening experience the body will instantly release the hormone adrenaline, which causes the fight-or-flight response to kick in.  Our brains are wired to tell us to flee or do battle in order to survive a threatening event.  While most people will eventually overcome the shock and emotional effects of a traumatic event, some will continue to suffer the after effects, re-experiencing this fight-or-flight response ongoingly.

PTSD is the condition that reflects an individual being emotionally “stuck” in the trauma.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the diagnostic criteria that define PTSD include the following symptoms lasting at least one month:

  • A minimum of one re-experiencing symptom, such as flashbacks, nightmares, or recurrent frightening 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, sleep disturbances, and angry outbursts
  • A minimum of two cognition and mood symptoms, such as difficulty remembering details of the traumatic event, negative thoughts about self or the world, inappropriate feelings of blame or guilt, and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed.

The Relationship Between PTSD and Addiction

Those who suffer the ongoing symptoms associated with severe trauma may look toward drugs or alcohol to help them manage the emotional pain they live with.  The daily symptoms, such as a chronic sense of irritability or edginess, insomnia, anger, and feelings of guilt are hard to bear.  Using alcohol or drugs to numb the emotional pain or to promote relaxation or sleep is a common coping mechanism.

Addiction develops when tolerance to the substance continues to ratchet up, leading to more frequent and higher dosing of the substance.  The brain chemistry changes in response to the influx of chemicals of the substance of abuse, impacting the natural neurotransmitters and hijacking the brain’s normal responses and messaging.  Over time, the brain adjusts to the constant dosing of the substance, demanding it.  This process, chemical addiction, leaves the individual with not only the haunting effects of the trauma, but addicted to the substance as well.  This combination of disorders is known as a dual diagnosis, a mental health disorder coupled with a substance use disorder.

Treatment for Co-Occurring PTSD and Addiction

To treat the client with both PTSD and a co-existing drug or alcohol addiction it is necessary to use an integrated approach.  Both disorders must be treated simultaneously for the best chances of sustained recovery, so a treatment program that offers dual diagnosis treatment is essential, starting with a medical detox.

In addition to the addiction treatment elements that include detox and withdrawal, individual and group counseling (using cognitive behavioral therapy), addiction education, antidepressant drug therapy, relapse prevention planning, and medically assisted treatment (optionally), treating the PTSD piece relies on specialized therapy.  Exposure therapy is an evidence-based therapeutic intervention that slowly desensitizes the individual to the person, place, or object associated with the trauma through exposure.  Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another therapy that has been used successfully to treat PTSD.  In EMDR the therapist will use movements that the patient follows with their eyes while the therapist has them recall the traumatic event, eventually weakening the impact of the negative thoughts and memories.

Capo By the Sea Offers Treatment for PTSD and Addiction

Capo By the Sea is a leading dual diagnosis provider of both inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment programs, located in beautiful Southern California.  Treating a dual diagnosis of PTSD and addiction is a specialty provided by the expert clinical staff at Capo By the Sea.  Each client is given a customized alcohol and drug treatment plan, addressing the unique features of the individual’s diagnostic needs and improving recovery success.  For more information about our dual diagnosis program, please contact Capo By the Sea today at (888) 529-2114.