Why Can’t I Self-Medicate for PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder affecting 3.6 percent of American adults. It commonly occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic event. PTSD also typically co-occurs with other mental or behavioral health disorders, like substance use disorder (SUD). Approximately 75 percent of people struggling with addiction have experienced trauma.

The tricky part of PTSD is that it’s a mental and emotional response to painful events. Many people with the condition rely on substances to cope with the overwhelming triggers.

Events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Serious injury
  • Threatened death
  • Witnessing death or violence
  • Natural disaster
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Exceptionally horrific events
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual assault

Trauma may also include one or more adverse childhood experiences, such as:

  • Neglect
  • Incest
  • Assault
  • Witnessing violence
  • Addiction and/or mental health disorders in the household

With such heavy issues causing this disorder, it’s no wonder that people sometimes self-medicate for PTSD.

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My PTSD Diagnosis Was a Window into My Addiction

I was diagnosed with complex PTSD — a version of PTSD characterized by lots of small traumas — about 6 years ago. My diagnosis served as a window into my history of addiction.

Many of the traumas I’d experienced were in childhood and adolescence. I really struggled to cope. I’d socially isolate myself, as well as struggle with unrelenting depression and anxiety. I spent most of my time in my room pretending I was somewhere else.

Then I discovered drugs, and my whole world changed.

Drugs and alcohol switched off my brain. They felt like a cure to my painful memories and feelings of despair. My anxiety improved, and I was a lot more sociable when I used.

I spent every waking moment either high or wanting to use. This pattern continued for 20 years until I finally found recovery and got help for PTSD and addiction.

The truth is that PTSD is very difficult to live with. People with PTSD experience a whole host of painful symptoms that can make you feel like you are re-experiencing the trauma. They can feel on edge, hyper-reactive, and struggle with phobias.

People with PTSD can experience very painful symptoms. Symptoms of PTSD can be like re-experiencing the trauma.

In general, PTSD symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty remembering key features of the event
  • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to traumatic events
  • Feeling startled or tense

It feels impossible to live with these feelings without doing something to numb the pain, which leads to self-medicating for PTSD.

How PTSD Can Trigger Addiction

Using substances to self-medicate for PTSD and alleviate trauma-related symptoms is very common.

Trauma significantly alters brain chemistry, reducing the number of feel-good chemicals we can experience.

Drugs and alcohol, however, artificially increase those chemicals. This makes substance use a temporary solution to make ourselves feel better. This makes perfect sense to me and millions of other people struggling with PTSD.

Quick Facts About PTSD and Addiction

  • People with PTSD have a very high chance of developing an addiction. Studies show that PTSD sufferers are 14 times more likely to struggle with substance use disorder.
  • Up to 60 percent of people seeking treatment for addiction also have PTSD.
  • Those with co-occurring PTSD and SUD (substance use disorder) are also at increased risk of:
  • Chronic physical health problems
  • Poorer social functioning
  • Higher rates of suicide
  • Increased risk of violence
  • Difficulty completing treatment
  • Legal issues
  • Veterans are at an increased risk of developing SUD and PTSD:
  • 27 percent of veterans of Iraq met the criteria for alcohol use disorder.
  • Veterans with a higher rate of combat exposure were 93 percent more likely to engage in alcohol misuse.
  • 21 percent of combat veterans meet the criteria for diagnosis of SUD.
  • 41 percent of combat veterans have co-occurring SUD and PTSD.

Using substances to self-medicate PTSD symptoms carries the risk of developing a dependence and substance use disorder.

Why I Would Self-Medicate for PTSD

I met the criteria for substance use disorder by my late teens, since:

  • I constantly craved substances.
  • My tolerance to substances grew fairly quickly. I had to take more and more to create the same effect.
  • I would walk to school and skip eating to save money for drugs and alcohol.
  • I put myself in danger multiple times when high.
  • I spent a lot of my time using, recovering from using, and thinking about using.
  • I missed school and work regularly.
  • I tried to cut back use and stop but couldn’t.
  • My family and social relationships were significantly impacted by my substance use. I had terrible mood swings, isolated myself from family, and wanted to spend time with acquaintances who took drugs.

By the time I was in my 20s, I knew that the consequences of using far outweighed the benefits. But I couldn’t stop. I struggled with severe depression and an eating disorder.

By the time I was in my 20s, I already knew that the consequences of using far outweighed the benefits.

I was in serious debt but still kept going for another decade. I lost many friendships, and my family kept me at an arm’s length. I was forever underperforming at work.

At age 30, I took steps to increase my use by living alone, only using at home, and taking large chunks of time off work. I spent the majority of my week using or recovering from using.

By 32, my doctor was seriously concerned about my health. My liver showed signs of damage from the constant drug and alcohol use. I was so depressed by this point that I considered suicide.

I quit my job with no plan.

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Self-Medicate for PTSD: My Road to Recovery

I vividly recall the week I got help. I had drank so much alcohol and taken so many pills that I gave myself alcohol poisoning. I seriously considered going to the hospital. But I was so depressed that I couldn’t get off the bathroom floor.

While I strongly discourage anyone from getting to this stage — especially because of the potentially fatal consequences of alcohol poisoning — it was a critical turning point for me.

I was at rock bottom and had to make a choice: I could continue down this road of destruction, where it would become more painful. Unquestionably, I would soon need to be admitted to a psychiatric facility. Or, I could get help for my substance use.

That was 10 years ago, and I have remained sober ever since.

It hasn’t been easy with my PTSD, which is why I had to undergo intensive trauma therapy. Without therapy, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to stay sober. I wouldn’t have learned coping skills for the painful memories of my trauma.

That’s why the recommended treatment for co-occurring PTSD and SUD is finding a facility that has experience treating both conditions.

For information about treatment options for you or a loved one, call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) today.

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