PTSD and Substance Abuse: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

By May 25, 2021August 23rd, 2023Substance Abuse, Trauma
PTSD and Substance Abuse

It is not uncommon for those suffering from conditions such as PTSD to use substances like drugs and/or alcohol to self-medicate. While it may seem to be working initially, this can quickly lead to an addiction. 

For someone who has a co-occurring mental health disorder like PTSD with substance abuse, treatment needs to be planned in a way that will encompass all aspects of healing. 

Let’s take a look at PTSD and substance abuse. What does it look like? How is it treated? 

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. This mental health disorder appears after one has been exposed or traumatized by an event or situation that caused a lot of stress. This may have been something that was life-threatening, violent, or causing severe injury. 

Those directly involved in a situation are the ones that typically experience PTSD. However, someone watching something traumatic take place is also prone to suffering from the condition. 

A few examples of situations that may lead to future PTSD are: 

  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Violent crimes
  • Accidents
  • Grief
  • Natural disasters
  • Military experiences

Related: What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD comes with various symptoms and signs that vary from mood changes and avoidance to reactive and intrusive. It is very important to keep in mind that while individuals have to meet certain criteria to be diagnosed with this mental health disorder, symptoms and the way they are handled will vary from person to person. 

Below is a list of the most common signs and symptoms of PTSD

  • Avoiding specific people, locations, or events. 
  • Avoiding talking about certain topics or feelings. 
  • Lack of interest in things once enjoyed. 
  • Constant negative attitude or emotions toward others and oneself. 
  • Unable to remember the traumatic event. 
  • Disruptive sleep patterns. 
  • Psychological distress concerning the traumatic event. 
  • Nightmares or flashbacks.
  • Inability to concentrate. 
  • Self-destructive behaviors. 
  • Anger and aggression. 

PTSD and Substance Abuse

Many PTSD sufferers turn to something as a way of coping with the signs and symptoms we talked about above. They use alcohol or drugs of any kind to help make the painful and uncomfortable symptoms fade – even if only for a little while. They are often used: 

  • To be able to halt the ever-present thoughts about the traumatic event. 
  • To get some sleep without disturbances or nightmares.
  • To not feel the harsh emotions. 
  • To feel normal for a bit.  

Traumatic events are hard to talk about and even more difficult to try to face and work through. So, numbing becomes the go-to method for dealing with PTSD. Unfortunately, the more the feelings of PTSD are masked by substance use, the longer they will go unresolved. And the greater the chance that substance use can become an addiction. 

When Self-Medicating Turns to Addiction

Using drugs or alcohol as a way of self-medicating PTSD symptoms can quickly turn into an addiction without even realizing it. You begin feeling as though you cannot get through life without that substance since it is what helps you feel more normal. As a result, changes begin happening in the body make you crave the substance, unable to get through a day without it. 

If you have ever wondered when substance abuse turns into an addiction, here are a few signs and symptoms to look for: 

  • Inability to reduce usage or quit altogether. 
  • Using in place of activities once enjoyed. 
  • Strong cravings for the substance. 
  • Using the substance for a long period – longer than intended – and at a higher rate. 
  • Allowing the substance use to interfere with responsibilities to family or work. 
  • Putting substance use above physical health, relationships, and safety. 
  • Needing additional amounts of the substance to gain the desired effect. 

Treatment for PTSD and Co-Occurring Addiction

Seeking treatment is important for overcoming PTSD and addiction. A healthy life full of joy and contentment is a reachable goal, but both disorders need to be addressed in treatment for a successful outcome. 

An integrative, dual-diagnosis approach can allow individuals to use therapeutic tools like: 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – A type of psychotherapy that helps modify thought patterns in an attempt to change thought patterns. 
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) – A type of CBT that helps in processing the thoughts, emotions, and feelings that surround the traumatic event. 
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) – A type of therapy that helps trauma survivors understand that the emotions and feelings they hold about a certain event are not actually harmful – and they don’t have to avoid them.

While gaining this therapy and the tools that will come from it in relation to PTSD, the individual is also going through a program to help with addiction. This means attending meetings and additional therapeutic sessions to learn how to overcome addictive behaviors. Often, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is used in addiction treatment, as well. 

Treatment can take place in several ways, depending on recommendations, preferences, financial ability, etc. For instance, there are often different levels of treatment available such as: 

Inpatient treatment is a type of treatment that takes place while living at the facility. These programs have everything needed on site. This is the best, most thorough option to find healing. 

Outpatient treatment means living at home while attending a program. There are lots of tools available to treat addiction and PTSD without interfering with daily responsibilities. 

Group treatment/counseling allows one to learn and grow from the experiences of others while improving social skills and interpersonal skills. 

Individual therapy is crucial in finding healing. This is where you find CBT, PE, and CPT methods being used with PTSD.

Always discuss your situation with professionals to determine the best individual treatment program for you. 

A well-designed program for co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD and addiction, will have a whole-body approach to wellness. This inpatient, intensive program works the mind, body, and spirit. Working with therapists and professionals who have an understanding that someone is struggling with both conditions can help cater the treatment approach accordingly. 

PTSD and addiction each require a lot of attention and focus to get through, but with the right treatment approach, it can be done successfully. 

If you’re interested in joining a treatment program, contact Villa Kali Ma to learn more about our unique approach and discover the treatment options we offer.

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