PTSD and Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment - PAX Riverbend

The Connection Between PTSD and Addiction

girl struggling with PTSD and addiction

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a debilitating mental disorder that affects individuals who have lived through a traumatic experience or prolonged trauma. Individuals with PTSD often struggle with substance use disorder such as an addiction to drugs. Oftentimes, individuals with PTSD begin to self-medicate their symptoms through the use of drugs or alcohol. This can cause individuals to develop a physical dependency or an addiction to whichever substance they are abusing. Additionally, abusing drugs while dealing with PTSD can cause symptoms to become more severe over time.

Individuals who suffer from both post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction require a form of treatment referred to as dual-diagnosis. Dual-diagnosis treatment focuses on helping the patient recover from both a mental health condition as well as addiction simultaneously. As a result, individuals are able to fully recover from both ailments, rather than allowing one to exacerbate the symptoms of the other. If you or a loved one suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, you should seek professional dual-diagnosis treatment as soon as possible.

What is PTSD?

By definition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by exposure to a disturbing or distressing event. Examples of traumatic experiences that can cause the onset of PTSD may include having your life threatened, experiencing sexual violence, or suffering a severe injury. However, trauma is subjective, meaning what some individuals are traumatized by, others may find perfectly normal. In other words, PTSD is caused by any type of traumatic event and can lead to severe impairment in the lives of those affected.

post-traumatic stress disorder

Symptoms of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder can include many different symptoms that may manifest in varying ways. Individuals with PTSD will have unique experiences and symptoms specific to the traumatic event they lived through or witnessed. While some individuals may have more fearful re-experiencing symptoms, others may struggle with severe depressive moods, negative thinking, or impacted social relationships. It is important to note that there are four different types of symptoms that individuals with PTSD can experience. For example, the four types of symptoms are known as intrusion symptoms, avoidance symptoms, negative mood and thought changes, as well as reactive symptoms.

The common intrusion symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Psychological distress when exposed to cues that relate to the event.
  • Significant physical responses to cues that relate to the event.
  • Dissociative reactions or flashbacks in which the person relives the event.
  • Repeated dreams about the trauma.
  • Persistent and involuntary dreadful memories of the event.

The avoidance symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Avoidance of external factors (such as locations, conversations, people, or activities) that remind the person of the traumatic event and cause terrifying thoughts, feelings, or memories.
  • Avoidance of painful memories, thoughts, or feelings associated with the trauma.

Negative mood and thought changes associated with PTSD:

  • Amnesia surrounding components of the traumatic event.
  • Negative thoughts or beliefs about the world, others, or oneself.
  • Distorted thinking that leads to blaming oneself for the event.
  • A chronic negative state of emotions (such as shame, anger, guilt, or fear).
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or activities.
  • Feeling estranged or detached from other people.
  • Consistently unable to feel positive emotions.

Additionally, the reactive symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Irritability and anger, typically expressed as aggression.
  • Self-destructive behaviors.
  • Hypervigilance or hyperarousal (increased anxiety and detection of threats).
  • Exaggerated response to being startled.
  • Concentration difficulties.
  • Sleep problems.

For an individual to be diagnosed with PTSD, they must display one of the intrusion symptoms, one of the avoidance symptoms, at least two of the negative mood and thought changes as well as at least two of the reactive symptoms for more than a month. If you or a loved one are suffering from PTSD, treatment is available and generally effective when taken seriously.

The Link Between PTSD and Addiction

Unfortunately, trauma negatively impacts the brain in many ways. For example, normal stress responses involve the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – a system connecting the brain and the body through hormonal triggers – as well as the hippocampus, amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex in the brain. Stress or anxiety then activates a release of cortisol and norepinephrine, increasing arousal and helping individuals take necessary action. In other words, after a typically stressful situation, individuals are able to turn off their stress responses or calm themselves down.

On the other hand, individuals with PTSD may remain chronically hyperaroused in this state, shutting down parts of their nervous system and creating the symptoms of PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder can also create severe issues with learning and memory, immune system function, psychological wellbeing, strained relationships, and issues with other social responsibilities. As a result of this, many individuals with PTSD begin to self-medicate their symptoms with drugs or alcohol.

Using Substances to Cope with PTSD

Because of the profound symptoms of stress and anxiety in relation to post-traumatic stress disorder, many individuals abuse drugs or alcohol. Common reasons that individuals with PTSD abuse substances may include, but are not limited to:

  • To fall asleep due to the sleep dysfunction caused by PTSD.
  • To avoid traumatic memories or dreams.
  • To forget about their problems.
  • To deal with mood disturbances associated with PTSD.
  • To numb themselves from extreme emotions.

Abusing any form of substance can begin to exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD and decrease functioning in all areas of an individual’s life. In order to avoid developing an addiction, individuals with PTSD should seek proper mental health treatment. However, if you are currently suffering from PTSD and addiction, there are plenty of effective treatment options available, including dual-diagnosis treatment programs.

Dual-Diagnosis Treatment for PTSD and Addiction

If you suffer from a dual-diagnosis such as PTSD and addiction, seek out a recovery center that specializes in the treatment of co-occurring disorders. Recovery centers like PAX Riverbend incorporate an array of effective treatment modalities into each individual patient’s treatment plan. For example, dual-diagnosis patients typically receive psychotherapy, individual and group counseling, as well as mental health and addiction education. In order to provide the best foundation of recovery for our clients at PAX Riverbend, we create a plan-of-action based on the individual patient’s unique needs. If you or a loved one would like to recover from co-occurring disorders like PTSD and addiction, contact us today for a free and confidential consultation.

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.