What you need to know about the relationship between PTSD, trauma, and substance abuse

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction are two very different challenges that are sometimes experienced at the same time. People are often curious about the ways that these two struggles overlap.  There are actually several ways that PTSD and substance use go together.

Substances as a solution

People who have PTSD struggle with anxiety and fear, isolation, and sleep difficulties.  Substance use can, understandably, seem like a solution.

Using alcohol might help someone who feels on guard all the time to be able to relax.  Benzodiazepines or marijuana might be used to help individuals who suffer from trauma to fall asleep.  People with PTSD may use substances to avoid thoughts, feelings, or memories associated with the traumatic event.

Research suggests that the relief from substances is short-lived and does not permanently improve the experience of individuals with PTSD, even if it does provide some temporary aid.  In fact the reality is quite the opposite – avoiding symptoms actually helps to maintain the symptoms of PTSD in the long run. The more that trauma-related thoughts and feelings are avoided, the worse symptoms become.

PTSD often leads to negative views of other people or the world, and as a result people with PTSD sometimes feel quite disconnected from friends and family. Using alcohol or other substances may seem like a good way to temporarily suspend those negative beliefs and connect with others.  Again, although using substances may temporarily help someone feel the connection to others that they’re craving, this is not a permanent solution and there are often unintended side effects that wreak havoc in their lives.

Substance abuse sometimes causes trauma

Substance use can, unfortunately, lead to further trauma.

Substances themselves can have effects that can be traumatic, for example a terrifying acid trip or an accidental overdose.  In a similar way, when people are under the influence of substances, their inhibitions are lower and so they are more likely to get into situations where traumatic events occur.  It’s common for people who are under the influence of substances not to feel the full impact of the trauma until later.

It’s important to note that it is less common for substance abuse to lead to trauma; much more often individuals have traumatic experiences and then begin using substances as a way to cope.   They may then be more susceptible to those additional traumatic experiences for a number of reasons, including environmental factors and reduced inhibition when under the influence.

Treatment solutions for both PTSD and substance abuse

When considering the co-occurrence of PTSD and substance abuse, it makes a lot of sense that these disorders go together.  Substance use promises quick relief from pain, and the pain of trauma can sometimes seem intolerable.  However, using substances rarely provides any kind of long term relief and can have a number of negative consequences.

The good news is that a number of effective treatments for co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse have been developed and there are specialists who are trained to help.  Treatment with a qualified professional is a critical part of healing and creating the life that those who suffer from trauma and substance abuse desire and deserve.

If you or someone you love is currently struggling, contact our office today to schedule an initial assessment.

Magda Permut, Ph.D

Author: Magda Permut, Ph.D

Magda Permut is a licensed psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy. She specializes in treating trauma and addiction and has a special passion for helping people live extraordinary lives.