Updated on May 31, 2023

Content reviewed by Christian Losch, LCSW, LCADC

Substance use disorder (SUD) can develop from a combination of various risk factors, including trauma. Untreated trauma can exacerbate physical and mental health problems, which can cause an individual to turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. One particularly challenging trauma-related condition is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which shares an inevitable link with the development of addiction.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after one experiences a seemingly shocking, scary or otherwise life-threatening event. While it is normal for anyone to feel afraid or on edge after experiencing a dangerous situation, individuals with PTSD experience long-lasting symptoms of fear that interfere with their functioning normally in their daily lives.

Who is at risk of developing PTSD?

PTSD can affect anyone at any age. However, there are specific risk factors that can make one more vulnerable to the development of PTSD. These risk factors include:

  • Your biological sex, as women are more likely to develop PTSD
  • Experiencing trauma during childhood
  • Feeling helpless or having extreme fear
  • Experiencing a long-lasting traumatic event
  • Lacking social support following a traumatic event
  • Dealing with added stress following a traumatic event
  • Having a family history of mental health conditions or substance use disorder

What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?

When individuals experience a traumatic situation, it is normal for them to experience short-term PTSD symptoms. The majority of people who experience trauma do not develop chronic PTSD. It is also important to note that not everyone with PTSD has experienced a dangerous event. Sudden, unexpected experiences of grief or loss can also contribute to PTSD and associated symptoms.

An individual must experience severe symptoms in all of the following categories for at least one month in order to be diagnosed with PTSD:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

Re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD

Re-experiencing symptoms cause an individual to re-live their traumatic experience. These symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Bad dreams or nightmares
  • Frightening intrusive thoughts

Avoidance symptoms

Avoidance symptoms cause an individual to avoid specific reminders of their traumatic event. These symptoms include:

  • Avoiding people, places, events or things that serve as reminders of one’s traumatic experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic situation

Arousal and reactivity symptoms

Arousal and reactivity symptoms are persistent, uncontrollable symptoms that one may experience due to trauma. These symptoms include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or on edge
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Having angry outbursts

Cognition and mood symptoms

Cognition and mood symptoms are other symptoms unique to how individuals view themselves and the world around them. These symptoms include:

  • Having trouble remembering critical features of the trauma
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings of guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in activities once found enjoyable

What is the correlation between PTSD and substance use?

PTSD and substance use disorders occur together at a prevalence of 46.4%. These conditions tend to co-occur because individuals who experience trauma are unlikely to know how to respond to trauma healthily. Instead, their minds and bodies are preoccupied with survival. Once a person undergoes trauma, it is unlikely they would proactively work to establish healthy coping mechanisms for navigating their emotional distress. As a result, many people turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate these thoughts and feelings.

Mental health disorders like PTSD alter brain chemistry similarly to substance use and addiction. The trauma that caused the development of PTSD can also trigger the development of substance use disorder. This connection is why it is imperative for individuals that experience trauma to seek out support resources as soon as possible to avoid self-medicating with substances and experiencing addiction.

Untreated co-occurring PTSD and SUD can result in:

  • Worsening chronic physical health problems
  • Poorer social functioning
  • Higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts
  • More legal problems
  • Increased risk of violence
  • Worsening treatment adherence
  • Less improvement during treatment

What are the treatment options for PTSD and addiction?

Treatment for comorbid PTSD and substance use disorder call for complex interventions. In order to successfully recover from co-occurring conditions, treatment must treat both conditions simultaneously. Especially for trauma and PTSD, treatment must be offered through a trauma-informed lens so that patients can understand how their trauma has impacted their daily behaviors.

Some research shows that the most promising treatment outcomes incorporate exposure therapy rather than non-exposure-based psychosocial treatments or medication trials. However, many traditional therapeutic modalities can work to break intrusive thought patterns and associated behavioral concerns. Although it may be uncomfortable for patients to face their trauma in a therapeutic setting, treatment will help them better function in their daily lives without having to live with constant fear or anxiety.

Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford recognizes the inevitable link between trauma and substance use. We help our patients understand the underlying causes that had led to their substance use and addiction while shedding light on healthier coping mechanisms for navigating their distress. We offer several treatment interventions to help individualize our patients’ care, making it unique and effective. To learn more, call us today at (877) 557-5372.