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How and why can PTSD Lead to Addiction?

Read on to learn about the link between PTSD and addiction, and what signs and symptoms to be aware of.

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that some people develop after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. While many people associate PTSD only with veterans, it is a condition that can affect anyone who goes through something traumatic, from a car crash to losing a loved one.

PTSD and “Danger Mode”

PTSD develops when the brain essentially gets stuck in “danger mode” following a distressing event. In this mode, the body’s senses are heightened, and one may experience fear or fight or flight. In this state, the body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine, which makes the heart beat faster and make you feel alert.[1]

This “danger mode,” or fear response, has allowed humans to evolve and survive dangerous situations, but with PTSD, the body stays in this mode even when it doesn’t need to. This leads to distressing PTSD symptoms like anxiety, anger, depression, sleep issues, and more. 

Complex PTSD

Individuals can also develop complex PTSD, which includes the same symptoms of PTSD, but is diagnosed in people who have lived through multiple traumatic experiences. While people with PTSD tend to experience a sense of threat, avoidance, and reliving their trauma, those with complex PTSD experience those symptoms along with a negative sense of self, emotional dysregulation, and relationship problems.[2]

Due to the distressing PTSD symptoms, some individuals use substances to cope, leading to alcohol or drug substance use disorders.

Signs and Symptoms of Co-Occurring PTSD and Addiction

PTSD and substance abuse can often occur simultaneously. Usually, this is because people turn to substances to manage the difficult symptoms caused by PTSD. It is also important to note that the symptoms of PTSD and addiction can overlap, and that addiction affects brain chemistry in similar ways as PTSD.

Additionally, the same trauma that causes PTSD in an individual can also cause a substance use disorder. Research on PTSD and addiction shows that 27.9% of women and 51.9% of men with lifetime PTSD also had a substance use disorder.[3]  

Common Indications of PTSD

Some common signs of PTSD include:

  • Intrusive memories of the traumatic event
  • Going out of their way to avoid certain situations, friends, or family that remind them of the distressing event, along with isolating oneself
  • Mood changes, like uncharacteristic violence or depression
  • Emotional changes, including blunted emotions or a lack of emotional regulation

Common Indications of Substance Addiction

Common signs of substance addiction include:

  • Mood changes and lack of interest in things previously found enjoyable
  • A fixation on acquiring and using a substance
  • Not meeting work or social obligations
  • Having intense cravings for the substance
  • Behavioral changes
  • Experiencing mental health challenges like anxiety and depression

How and Why Can PTSD Lead to Addiction?

PTSD and substance abuse are linked because people often use substances to cope with PTSD symptoms. Additionally, when someone develops PTSD, that person’s nervous system becomes activated and is in a state of near-constant hypervigilance. This means the body is in a constant state of stress, unable to return to the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows for rest, digestion, and healing. This takes a toll on the mind and body, and some people with PTSD find that substances allow them to feel a sense of relief from the constant stress of their PTSD symptoms.

Unfortunately, PTSD and addiction are a vicious cycle. When alcohol or drugs are used to manage PTSD symptoms, it often only makes issues worse, as substance abuse doesn’t address the root cause of the issue.

Different Types of PTSD and Addiction Treatment Programs

When dealing with PTSD and addiction, it’s important to seek help to prevent the conditions from worsening. There are many options available, which will be detailed below.

Inpatient Treatment

This treatment is an excellent option for people looking for intensive, one-on-one care. With inpatient treatment, individuals stay at a mental health or addiction facility at all times, usually for the duration of a month or longer.

Here, individuals have the chance to work with therapists and other medical professionals to heal their trauma, address addiction, and begin recovery without the triggers and stressors of the outside world. There are treatment centers for PTSD and drug addiction as well as for PTSD and alcohol addiction.

Outpatient Treatment

Like inpatient treatment, individuals can receive one-on-one care with outpatient treatment, but with the benefit of treatment being on the patient’s schedule. This means you attend day programs to address addiction issues or mental health concerns, but you are free to go home in the evening. This is a good option for people who want to continue working, taking classes, and generally continuing their daily lives while also healing.

12-Step Programs

One of the most successful treatment programs for addiction is the 12-step program. This program encourages individuals dealing with addiction to take control of their lives by following a regimented program focused on accountability, faith, and perseverance.[4]

Support Groups

Sometimes, what a person needs most is to know they’re not alone. When dealing with addiction and PTSD, it’s easy to feel isolated and like no one understands what you’re going through. However, support groups for these PTSD and drug addiction can help you find solidarity with other people who share your struggles. 

Veterans Programs

For veterans experiencing PTSD or addiction, there are specific support groups and programs to offer assistance. Many of these programs are offered across the country, more info can be found via Veterans Affairs.[5]

PTSD and substance abuse 

Treatment for Addiction and PTSD

Some people may think that treating the trauma behind PTSD will heal both PTSD and substance abuse. However, this is often not the case, and it is essential to treat PTSD and drug addiction as co-occurring conditions. This means both PTSD symptoms and addiction symptoms are addressed separately, with an emphasis on how the two conditions can affect each other.

Opportunities for Wellness at Genesis Recovery

PTSD and addiction treatment centers can be a good place to start. At Genesis Recovery, you have the opportunity to address substance abuse and PTSD with holistic therapies and interventions. Genesis Recovery offers co-occurring disorder treatment programs that allow for high-quality and integrated care, so both addiction and PTSD are effectively addressed.

Our guarantee of offering ongoing support, well into your recovery, means you are supported every step of the way. Don’t wait to get PTSD and substance abuse treatment. Get help today for PTSD and addiction at Genesis Recovery.


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