Yes, There’s a Link Between Addiction and PTSD
Published: 03/16/2022 | Author: Olivia Pennelle
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common mental health condition that can occur following a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. The strong link between addiction and PTSD is commonly understood by clinicians, as trauma survivors often turn to substances to self-medicate.
Conversely, people with addiction tend to develop PTSD because of the experienced trauma of their addiction. Either way, PTSD is a common condition that affects six percent of the American population. The condition can significantly impair the quality of your day-to-day life.
However, there are many effective treatments for these co-occurring conditions. It’s entirely possible to make a full recovery.
What is PTSD?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is a mental health disorder that develops in reaction to a traumatic event. These events may include a natural disaster, combat/war, a serious accident, domestic violence, sudden death of a loved one, sexual assault, or serious injury.
Symptoms of PTSD in adults include:
- Feeling startled or tense
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry outbursts
- Difficulty remembering key features of the event
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Staying away from places or objects that remind you of the traumatic event
To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have at least:
- One re-experiencing symptom (flashbacks)
- One avoidance symptom (staying away from specific places)
- Two arousal or reactivity problems (being easily startled or angry outbursts)
- Two cognition and mood symptoms (memory lapses, negative thoughts, etc)
How Common is PTSD?
Despite common misconceptions that PTSD only affects soldiers, PTSD can affect anyone of any age, ethnicity, culture, and nationality. In fact, PTSD affects eight million adults in the U.S. each year.
However, PTSD is more common among certain demographics:
- Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD as men.
- Latinos, African Americans, and Indigenous people experience higher rates of PTSD than white people.
- Although men report higher instances of trauma, women are more likely to develop PTSD.
What Are the Risk Factors for PTSD?
Anyone can develop PTSD. However, certain groups of people, like women and people of color, are at a higher risk of developing the condition. Other risk factors include:
- Childhood trauma
- Witnessing another person get hurt or die
- Living through dangerous events
- Having little or no social support after a trauma
- Dealing with additional stress after the event such as an injury or home loss
- A history of mental illness
- A history of substance use and addiction
While not everyone who has experienced trauma develops PTSD, clinicians estimate that around one-third of people develop PTSD after a trauma.
The Link Between Addiction and PTSD
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), as many as 75 percent of people with substance use disorders have experienced trauma—and up to 34 percent have PTSD.
A common risk factor for PTSD and addiction is childhood trauma.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is an authority on the connection between trauma and its effects in later life. Dr. Vicent Felitti and colleagues found a correlation between childhood trauma and mental illness, addiction, cognitive and learning difficulties, eating disorders, and chronic illness in later life.
The major observations of the ACE study highlighted the connection between trauma and addiction. Researchers found:
- 64 percent of adults have experienced one ACE
- 40 percent of adults have experienced two or more ACEs
- A person with four or more ACEs are five times more likely to develop a substance use disorder
- A male with four or more ACEs is 46 times more likely to use IV drugs in later life
Felitti concluded that “The basic cause of addiction is predominantly experience-dependent from childhood, and not substance-dependent,” arguing trauma often leads to addiction.
How Trauma-Focused Treatment Can Help Addiction
That was certainly the case for Lauren, who had experienced multiple ACEs: “When I first started trauma therapy, I was shocked to learn that I wasn’t just dealing with the trauma of my addiction, I actually scored a nine in the ACE quiz, including childhood neglect, to parental separation, the loss of a parent, mental illness, violence, witnessing an assault, and addiction.”
While in early recovery, Lauren blamed herself for her addiction. “This trauma lens gave me a new perspective to see how my addiction developed. I saw that I wasn’t to blame and that in fact, I was really lucky to be alive and in recovery,” she said.
For Lauren, her story was a success. She underwent trauma-informed therapy and developed the skills required to maintain her recovery. “I’m nearly ten years in recovery now and while I’m still aware of the traumas, it doesn’t cause the pain and shame that it used to, so I have been able to move on and thrive in life without those traumas holding me back.”
Breaking the Link Between Addiction and PTSD
The main treatments for PTSD are medication and behavioral therapy (CBT, EMDR, exposure therapy, and cognitive restructuring). However, there are several other approaches to support healing and recovery, including:
- Finding recovery from substances through specialist treatment
- Finding social and community support
- Joining a mutual aid group with other people struggling with trauma and addiction
- Developing positive coping strategies and skills
- Improving self-efficacy and self-esteem
- Learning to respond rather than react
- Acknowledging that you can face and overcome fears
It’s critical in the recovery process to understand the link between addiction and PTSD. When seeking treatment, those struggling with PTSD need to look for trauma-informed treatment centers with experience treating these co-occurring disorders.
If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder or PTSD, help is available. Call 866-351-3840(Who Answers?) today to speak with a treatment specialist.
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