PTSD and addiction

Imagine a tangled web of strings, each strand representing either PTSD or addiction. When you try to untangle one, you inadvertently tighten the knot of the other, keeping you tangled up and helpless. Unfortunately, this image represents the daunting challenge faced by those grappling with dual diagnosis addiction and PTSD. At Recovery Lighthouse, we understand the complexities of these co-occurring conditions and can provide effective treatment to help you release yourself from the web and break free from the cycle of addiction and PTSD.

PTSD and addiction

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD can affect people of all ages and backgrounds and it can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. Between 3.9% and 5.6% of people in the world suffer from PTSD with numbers far higher in areas where poverty and high crime rates mean daily life is generally more traumatic.

PTSD symptoms can manifest in various ways, including:

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories of the traumatic event
  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma
  • Changes in mood, such as depression, anxiety or irritability
  • Increased arousal or reactivity, like being easily startled or having difficulty sleeping

What is dual diagnosis PTSD and addiction?

Dual diagnosis refers to the presence of both a mental health disorder and an addiction at the same time. In the case of PTSD and addiction, the two conditions often exacerbate each other, creating a complex and intertwined struggle for those affected. Co-occurring PTSD and addiction are extremely common, with 39% of sufferers also suffering from alcohol addiction, 34.1% from cocaine addiction and 44.8% from cannabis addiction. Up to 59% of young people who develop PTSD also develop substance abuse problems.

Common forms of dual diagnosis PTSD and addiction include:

PTSD and alcohol addiction…

Alcohol addiction is common among people with PTSD, as they may use alcohol to self-medicate and numb the emotional pain of their trauma. However, excessive alcohol consumption can worsen PTSD symptoms and make recovery more difficult.

PTSD and drug addiction…

Similarly, people with PTSD may turn to drugs, such as prescription medications or illicit substances, to cope with their symptoms. This can lead to drug addiction which can make PTSD symptoms worse in the long run and further complicate the treatment process.

PTSD and behavioural addiction…

Behavioural addictions such as gambling, shopping or sex can also develop in people with PTSD as a means to escape their emotional pain. Like substance addictions, these behaviours can exacerbate PTSD symptoms and hinder the recovery process.

Why is co-occurring PTSD and addiction so common?

There are several reasons why PTSD and addiction often co-occur. These include:

Escapism and avoidance…

People with PTSD may use substances or addictive behaviours as a way to escape from or self-medicate for the intrusive thoughts, flashbacks or nightmares related to their traumatic experiences. This coping mechanism can quickly turn into addiction as the person becomes reliant on the substance or behaviour to feel a sense of control or relief.

Similar impacts on the brain…

Both PTSD and addiction have been linked to changes in the brain’s stress response system and the areas responsible for regulating emotions. This shared vulnerability in brain function might increase the likelihood of developing both conditions simultaneously.

Social isolation…

PTSD can lead to social isolation as sufferers may withdraw from friends and family due to feelings of shame, guilt or fear of being triggered. This isolation can contribute to the development of addiction as it may increase the likelihood of turning to substances or addictive behaviours to cope with loneliness and lack of social support.

PTSD and addiction - woman struggling emotionally

Increased risk-taking behaviour…

PTSD can also lead to increased risk-taking behaviour, such as substance use, due to impaired decision-making abilities or a lack of regard for personal well-being. This is particularly true in victims of sexual abuse, who often develop feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem.

Genetic predisposition…

Research suggests that there may be a genetic component to the development of both PTSD and addiction, so people with a family history of mental health or substance use disorders may be more susceptible to developing both conditions.

How is addiction treated when PTSD is present?

Treating co-existing mental health and addiction disorders can be challenging, as the two conditions often magnify and feed off each other. People with PTSD may face unique challenges in rehab, including:

  • Intense emotions and memories related to the traumatic event
  • Difficulty trusting others or forming connections in group therapy settings
  • An increased risk of relapse due to the dual nature of their conditions
  • Sleep disturbances (common in PTSD sufferers)
  • Difficulties staying motivated

Recovery Lighthouse grants you a safe and reliable place to face your addiction, even with a dual diagnosis. First, however, your condition must be stable enough to undergo rehab treatment.

Before starting treatment at Recovery Lighthouse, it is, therefore, essential to speak with your GP about getting your PTSD symptoms under control. This may involve medication, therapy or a combination of both but once your PTSD is being managed, you can begin the rehab process.

Which addiction therapies can also benefit PTSD?

Some of the most effective therapies for addiction that can also help with the symptoms of PTSD include:

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)…

CBT is a widely used evidence-based therapy that helps people develop healthier coping mechanisms and change negative thought patterns. For those with dual diagnosis PTSD and addiction, CBT can be particularly helpful in addressing triggers and ineffective/unhealthy coping strategies like substance use. By learning to identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, people learn to manage their emotions more effectively and develop healthier behaviours.

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)…

EMDR is a specialised therapy technique that helps process traumatic memories and reduce their emotional impact. This can be especially beneficial for people with PTSD and addiction as it can help them process the underlying trauma that may be contributing to their substance use or addictive behaviours. By addressing these root causes of PTSD, they can then better manage their addiction and improve their overall well-being.

Group therapy…

Group therapy is an essential component of addiction treatment. It can be particularly beneficial for people with co-occurring PTSD and addiction as it provides support and a sense of community for those navigating the challenges of dual diagnosis recovery. Sharing experiences and hearing from others with similar struggles can help people feel less isolated and provide valuable information about coping strategies and the recovery process.

How to get help

If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD and addiction, know that help is available. Get in touch with Recovery Lighthouse today and begin the recovery process. We are committed to guiding you on the path to healing and a new life.

Frequently asked questions

Will rehab cure my PTSD?
While rehab might not entirely “cure” PTSD, it can significantly improve your symptoms and overall quality of life. In rehab, you’ll receive evidence-based therapies designed to address your addiction and understand your PTSD symptoms. These treatments can help you process traumatic memories, develop healthier coping strategies and manage your emotional responses more effectively.
Can PTSD medication be addictive?
While some medications prescribed for PTSD can have the potential for addiction, most are considered safe when used as directed under the supervision of a healthcare professional. However, some medications, such as benzodiazepines, can be habit-forming if misused or taken for extended periods. It’s essential to discuss your concerns about addiction with your healthcare provider and follow their recommendations for using any prescribed medication. They will help you find the most appropriate and safest treatment options for managing your PTSD symptoms.