Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach for New Life

Co-occurring disorders are when substance use disorder (SUD) and one or more mental health disorders occur simultaneously. Nearly half of individuals who struggle with a mental health disorder will also experience SUD at some point in their lives. The same is true in reverse.

There are limitless combinations of co-occurring disorders, however, one particularly common combination involves post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and addiction. It is important to bring awareness to the relationships between PTSD and SUD to better understand why they so frequently occur together and to prevent either or both conditions from worsening.

Why Do PTSD and Addiction Co-Occur?

PTSD is a condition that develops from experiencing a life-threatening or otherwise dangerous event. While it is natural to feel scared or shocked after experiencing a traumatic event, individuals with PTSD do not find their symptoms resolving over time. These people may continue to feel stressed, frightened or fearful even when no threat is present.

On the other side of the coin, addiction is a complex and chronic illness characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and drug-using behavior. While an individual’s initial decision to use drugs may be voluntary, drug use alters brain functioning and structure in intense ways. These changes contribute to the compulsions that involve seeking and using substances repeatedly.

In general, there are three possible reasons why mental health disorders and SUDs co-occur. For PTSD and addiction, in particular, these possibilities include:

#1. PTSD and substance use disorder share risk factors.

PTSD and SUD are often experienced together as they develop from shared risk factors. Risk factors make an individual more vulnerable to developing a certain condition. Not everyone who experiences life-threatening events develops PTSD. However, factors that may increase the risk of developing PTSD include:

  • Living through trauma
  • Getting physically or mentally hurt
  • Seeing another person hurt
  • Unresolved childhood trauma
  • Feeling helplessness or extreme fear
  • Lacking social support following a traumatic event
  • Dealing with added stress after a traumatic event, such as losing a loved one
  • Having a family history of mental health disorders
  • Having a family history of substance use
  • Co-occurring substance use problems

Likewise, there are a host of factors that can increase the risk of developing an addiction. Notice how many of these points overlap with those for PTSD. Risk factors for addiction include:

  • Experiencing trauma
  • Inadequate knowledge of healthy coping mechanisms
  • Lack of social support
  • Low self-worth and self-esteem
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Having a family history of mental health disorders
  • Having a family history of substance use
  • Using alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate
  • Co-occurring mental health problems

#2. PTSD can contribute to substance use disorder.

Another reason why PTSD and addiction tend to co-occur is that PTSD can instigate substance abuse, which can quickly trigger the development of addiction. Experiencing perceived trauma of any kind can be debilitating. When symptoms do not subside and transform into PTSD, an individual can feel as if they are reliving their trauma over and over again.

Because of a lack of inadequate coping mechanisms, or as means of feeling quick relief, many people with PTSD turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate their distress. Not only does this exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD, but it also can quickly lead to chemical dependency and addiction. Individuals must have knowledge of healthy coping mechanisms for navigating stress, especially PTSD, to avoid developing an addiction.

#3. Addiction can contribute to the development of PTSD.

Lastly, addiction can contribute to the development of PTSD. This is because substance use can trigger long-lasting changes in brain structure and functioning that makes an individual more vulnerable to the development of a mental health condition, such as PTSD. Similarly, being under the influence of substances can alter consciousness in such a way that an individual may be more likely to hurt themselves or others or be taken advantage of. These situations are undoubtedly traumatic and can trigger PTSD.

Treatment for PTSD and Addiction

The most effective route for treating co-occurring conditions, such as PTSD and addiction, involves treating both conditions simultaneously. Research shows promising data on using psychosocial treatment modalities that involve an exposure therapy component to best treat these conditions.

Treatment centers should focus on using trauma-focused care for patients healing from trauma, especially those diagnosed with PTSD. Individualized treatment plans must be created so that treatment fits the needs and goals of the individual seeking recovery. Most importantly, treatment facilities must offer multiple social support networking opportunities so that individuals can discuss their experiences, challenges and victories with others who are going through a similar recovery journey. Social support plays a key role in facilitating and maintaining resilience, which aids in lifelong abstinence and recovery.

New Life Addiction Counseling and Mental Health Services understands that trauma is never something someone should have to endure or heal from alone. We use trauma-focused care to ensure that our patients feel safe, supported and encouraged throughout their treatment journey. We focus on treating the root cause of your co-occurring conditions to prevent future relapse and motivate positive healing. We also offer an abundance of social support services to complement your treatment. Call us today at (877) 929-2571.