How and Why Can PTSD Lead to Addiction?

PTSD and addiction can go hand in hand. Read on to learn more about these experiences and what treatment options are available.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental illness characterized by symptoms relating to a person’s continued experience of trauma symptoms, long after the original source of the trauma has passed. The disorder has long been associated with soldiers and military veterans – originally referred to as “shell shock,” which attributed the symptoms of PTSD as the result of shock from the use of artillery shells – but PTSD is not restricted to only this one demographic.

PTSD can happen to anyone, at any age. Some statistics suggest one 1 of every 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.
PTSD and addiction


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PTSD and Addiction

Addiction is an all too common consequence of PTSD, as many people use substances as a coping mechanism.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that develops in those who have experienced or witnessed trauma. While trauma often leads to fear and other symptoms in most cases, someone with PTSD will experience symptoms related to the event long after the trauma has resolved.

What Causes PTSD?

PTSD is the result of experiencing or witnessing trauma and changes in the brain that occur as a result. Trauma can be caused by anything which a person perceives as extremely distressing, and any kind of trauma can lead to the development of a post-traumatic stress disorder.

Common Causes

Common causes of PTSD include:
  • Abuse – Experiencing or witnessing abuse can cause a person to develop PTSD.
  • Illness or Injury – Being unable to protect one’s body from harm can impact a person’s sense of safety in profound ways and lead to PTSD.
  • Violence and Natural Disasters – Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires can all potentially cause PTSD for those who are affected by them. Feelings of helplessness associated with these events potentially exacerbate the impact of trauma.

The Relationship Between PTSD and Addiction

Some studies suggest that up to 50% of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder have drug or alcohol use disorders. This relationship may be due to the deeply unpleasant symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, paranoia, and intense and overwhelming fear, which are often able to be subdued through the effects of drugs and alcohol, leading people to turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication.

Signs of PTSD

The signs of PTSD look different from person to person. This is because everyone reacts differently to trauma. As a result, there are several signs of potential PTSD, such:

Attitude and Behavioral Changes

Depression and anxiety are commonly associated with PTSD. Cognitive challenges, memory issues, and loss of interest in hobbies or activities are other common effects. These changes can make those affected by the condition appear less engaged, or vibrant than they did prior to the traumatic incident.

Difficulty Sleeping and Concentrating

Nightmares and night terrors are common sleep disturbances for those with PTSD and can cause reduced or less restful sleep. As a result, due to reduced quantity and quality of sleep, persons with PTSD may appear disorganized or forgetful due to an impaired ability to concentrate.

Feeling Numb and Avoiding People

Many sufferers of PTSD report feeling numb – this can be the result of depression and dissociation, both often reported symptoms of PTSD. PTSD can also lead to avoidance of people or situations that may remind them of the trauma.

Reliving the Trauma

Returning to the site where a trauma occurred (or someplace similar), reading about someone experiencing a similar traumatic event, or being forced to stay in the same place as one’s abuser, can cause victims of trauma to feel as though they are reliving the trauma. Flashbacks may happen to individuals with PTSD, even without an obvious trigger or known cause.

Effects of PTSD

Part of what makes PTSD such a difficult disorder to manage are its broad and far-reaching effects. Individuals with PTSD may feel that their symptoms can feel nearly inescapable and can include:

Distortion of Beliefs

A person with PTSD may hold beliefs which conflict with their opinions prior to trauma. For instance, they may experience more negative beliefs about themselves, or believe that other people want to hurt them.

Nightmares and Flashbacks

When we sleep, our brains spend their time doing vital work organizing and processing memories. For those whose memory formation has been affected by trauma, they may experience nightmares and flashbacks as a result.


Individuals with PTSD commonly try to avoid things which remind them of their trauma. Things traumatized individuals avoid may have straightforward explanations, such as the site of a traumatic incident or specific kinds of cars, if they were involved in a wreck. They may also avoid less obvious PTSD triggers, such as situations in which they could feel hopeless, or out of control.

Lack of Interest

Depression and anxiety are two of the most common PTSD symptoms, and both can cause a lack of interest and/or reduced enjoyment in activities, even those that were once a person’s favorites.

Cognitive Challenges

Feelings of disinterest, the physical exhaustion anxiety can cause, and poor quality or insufficient sleep, can create a potent combination which impacts a person’s cognitive abilities.

Causes of PTSD

As with most mental health conditions, due to a variety of factors, some people may be more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder than others. When someone experiences the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, it is most likely a combination of multiple stressors that contribute to symptom development. These include:

Stressful Experiences

It is essential to consider the frequency, type, and severity of different stressors when assessing their role in trauma formation. Frequent stressors that may contribute to PTSD may also contribute to substance abuse concerns.

Inherited Mental Health Risks

Factors such as a family history of anxiety and depression may increase one’s risk of developing PTSD and co-occurring addiction and PTSD.

Inherited Personality Features

Also referred to as a person’s “temperament,“ specific personality traits may impact your risk of developing PTSD from trauma. Those who could be classified as resilient, with high feelings of self-confidence and esteem, may be less likely to develop PTSD than others.

Hormone and Chemical Regulation

How your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones released in response to stress may increase the stress response. The release of adrenaline is necessary to cause a person to experience fight-or-flight, and could play a role in the development of PTSD.

Complications with PTSD

When someone experiences trauma that leads to PTSD, the resulting symptoms can have a significant and detrimental effect on all areas of their lives. There are several complicating health conditions that can develop out of PTSD. These effects can include:

Depression and Anxiety

Common symptoms of PTSD, which can leave people in cycles of despair, and helplessness, depression and anxiety should be a top concern for those concerned about PTSD developing in themselves or someone they know.

Issues with Drugs or Alcohol Use

Addiction, and self-medication, can occur as the result of any kind of trauma, especially if a person has a prolonged history of multiple traumatic experiences.

Eating Disorders

Depression and anxiety can cause disturbances in appetite. Physical discomfort, hypervigilance, and a need to fixate on a controllable aspect of a person’s life, may also contribute to higher risks of eating disorders in those with PTSD.

Suicidal Thoughts and Actions

Trauma and symptoms associated with it can be incredibly overwhelming. When paired with changes in brain chemistry, and a heightened fight-or-flight response, these can create conditions in which a person may experience suicidal thoughts or ideations.

Why Do People with PTSD Use Drugs?

People with PTSD are at a greater risk of developing co-occurring PTSD and drug addictions. Symptoms of PTSD, and the trauma that led to the disorder’s development, change how the brain functions. It is not uncommon for people struggling with PTSD to use drugs to dull the intensity of their symptoms. Some drugs could reduce the severity and frequency of nightmares and flashbacks caused by sleep. Others may reduce a person’s anxiety to allow them to concentrate better on important tasks. If the underlying motivations for drug use are not addressed – like a need for better quality sleep or reduced anxiety to be able to complete essential tasks – then it is unlikely that treatment will be effective.

Drug Misuse is Not a Healthy Solution

While drug use may temporarily help to minimize symptom severity, it can lead to a number of problems. Primarily, drug use to avoid PTSD does not help to address the underlying cause of symptoms, which is usually related to the formation and storage of traumatic memories. Additionally, drug use can impact a person’s personal and professional lives through the behavioral and attitude changes caused by drugs.

How Is Complex PTSD Diagnosed?

Complex PTSD, also called C-PTSD, is a type of PTSD not technically recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A mental healthcare provider may consider a person’s PTSD to be complex if their trauma has occurred over a long period of time rather than one isolated traumatic event.
PTSD and addiction

Therapy for PTSD and Addiction

There are several elements necessary for effective PTSD and substance use treatment. Several types of therapy are used as part of a comprehensive PTSD and substance use treatment program.

Cognitive Restructuring Therapy

Cognitive restructuring therapy is a type of psychotherapy that helps participants make sense of the trauma they experienced. This treatment model aims to help someone with PTSD consider their trauma in a realistic way.

Individual Therapy

In individual therapy, patients work one-on-one with a therapist to address that person’s unique individual needs. Therapists may assist patients in processing their trauma to reduce PTSD symptoms.

Group Therapy

Group therapy sessions, led by trained mental healthcare providers, can facilitate healthy introspection, provide peer support, and allow those suffering from PTSD to enjoy the benefits of an empathetic community.

Family Therapy

In therapy, one of the most useful tools mental healthcare providers have can be supportive family members to provide continuous and ongoing care and support for patients.

PTSD and Addiction Treatment at Concise Recovery

If you or a loved one are struggling, seeking help at a treatment program specializing in PTSD treatment is the best way to begin your journey. Without treatment, symptoms of PTSD can persist throughout a lifetime. With treatment, it is possible to treat symptoms so that they may be reduced and more effectively managed. If you are ready to start your recovery journey, contact us today to learn more about PTSD and Addiction Treatment at Concise Recovery.