Updated on 07/03/23

Content reviewed by Christian Losch, LCSW, LCADC

Co-occurring conditions refer to having a combination of mental health disorders and substance use disorders that occur simultaneously. Nearly half of individuals that experience a substance use disorder will also experience a co-occurring mental health disorder and vice versa at some point in their lives. As there are endless combinations of co-occurring conditions, it may be helpful to pinpoint some of the most common varieties.

As you familiarize yourself with the most common co-occurring disorders, you can be more aware of warning signs that may surface in you or a loved one struggling with a particular condition and recognize their vulnerability to developing a co-occurring disorder.

Why do mental health disorders and substance use disorders co-occur?

Three main possibilities explain why mental health disorders and substance use disorders tend to occur together. Just because they occur together does not necessarily mean that one caused the other. Similarly, it can be difficult to detect what disorder developed first. These possibilities include:

  • Both mental health disorders and substance use disorders develop from the same shared genetic and environmental risk factors.
  • Mental health disorders can trigger substance use and associated substance use disorders as one attempts to self-medicate their emotional distress using alcohol or other drugs.
  • Substance use disorders can trigger the development of mental health disorders as substance use can alter brain functioning, making an individual more likely to develop a mental health disorder.

Anxiety-related disorders are often linked with alcohol use disorder.

Anxiety disorders tend to co-occur with alcohol use disorder (AUD) at a prevalence of 20 to 40%. The three distinct anxiety-related conditions that most commonly co-occur with AUD include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder

As mentioned above, genetic and environmental factors are responsible for triggering the development of co-occurring anxiety disorders and AUD. Compared to other substance use disorders, AUD may occur more frequently with other mental health disorders because of how readily available alcohol is in our daily lives. With drinking acknowledged as a societal norm, it is no wonder many people turn to alcohol use to cope with their anxiety.

Treating anxiety disorders and co-occurring AUD can be challenging as it is difficult to discern what condition developed first. Anxiety can be alcohol-induced; however, AUD can also trigger anxiety-related symptoms, especially following alcohol withdrawals. Treatment will help patients create a timeline of the onset of their anxiety symptoms as well as alcohol use to create an effective recovery plan.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent with alcohol use disorder.

Another commonly co-occurring condition is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and AUD. PTSD can facilitate the development of AUD similarly to anxiety disorders, as individuals who struggle with their mental health are more likely to turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. However, a few things set anxiety disorders and PTSD apart from one another when it comes to the co-occurrence of AUD. First, heavy alcohol use can increase the likelihood of experiencing life-threatening events, including violence and assault. Similarly, AUD can interfere with an individual’s psychological ability to cope with seemingly traumatic events. It can cause disruptions in sleep, arousal and cognition, making an individual more likely to develop PTSD.

Mood disorders and substance use disorder go hand in hand.

The most common psychiatric comorbid disorders are mood disorders and substance use disorders. The most common mood disorders that occur along substance use disorder include major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. The significant hallmarks of mood disorders include recurring episodes of disruptions in behavior, mood, energy and sleep. Especially when mood disorders are combined with SUD, an individual is likely to experience significant issues within their interpersonal relationships.

Similar to AUD with the conditions mentioned previously, long-term exposure to alcohol alongside untreated depressive or manic symptoms can exacerbate the symptoms of both conditions. When mood disorders co-occur with SUD, an individual will likely experience a longer duration of unsteady mood episodes, poorer cognitive functioning and a higher risk of suicide.

Effective treatment for co-occurring conditions must be collaborative and comprehensive.

If you or a loved one is struggling with a co-occurring condition, recognize that you are not alone. Although treatment for co-occurring conditions can take much time and effort, it will be worth it to no longer feel overruled or controlled by your diagnoses.

Treatment for co-occurring conditions must address both disorders simultaneously. This necessity derives from the challenge of pinpointing what developed first. Similarly, treatment will work to address the underlying causes of both conditions and work to instill healthy coping mechanisms so that the individual can experience lifelong abstinence.

Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford is a premier drug and alcohol treatment center that recognizes the prevalence of co-occurring disorders affecting individuals of all ages. We offer a specialized program for treating co-occurring conditions as we understand that many people who experience mental health disorders quite often develop substance use problems as a result of self-medicating practices. We will help you heal through the effects of your co-occurring conditions. To learn more, please call us at (877) 557-5372.