PTSD and Addiction

Table of Contents


There is a strong association between PTSD and addiction. Up to 50% of those seeking treatment for substance use disorder (drug addiction) also meet the criteria for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

What Is PTSD?

While PTSD has traditionally been linked to combat veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder can affect people from all demographics. Research indicates that around one in eleven U.S. citizens will suffer from PTSD at some point in life. 

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PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop in some people subjected to witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. The disorder is characterized by intensely distressing thoughts that linger long after the traumatic event is over. In many cases, PTSD symptoms are so severe that daily functioning is impaired and treatment is desirable. 

PTSD frequently co-occurs with drug abuse or alcohol abuse in response to experiencing a traumatic event. What constitutes trauma will vary from person to person. In addition to combat exposure, sexual violence, physical assault, acts of terrorism, and natural disasters can all trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. 

When PTSD and addiction co-occur in a dual diagnosis, an accurate diagnosis is essential. From here, a treatment team can create a personalized and integrated treatment plan to maximize your chances of maintaining ongoing sobriety and sound mental health. 

PTSD can also occur as one of several sub-types, including: 

  • Complex PTSD: Experiencing trauma at a young age or being exposed to repeated trauma over time can manifest as complex PTSD. Complex PTSD and addiction frequently co-occur in combat veterans.
  • Delayed-onset PTSD: If the symptoms of post-traumatic disorder do not present until six months or more after the traumatic event, this is diagnosed as delayed-onset PTSD.
  • Birth trauma: Women experiencing a traumatic childbirth can develop PTSD in the aftermath.
  • Secondary trauma: Some people experience PTSD symptoms after providing support to a loved one is diagnosed with the disorder.
A man dealing with the dual diagnosis of PTSD and addiction

Dual Diagnosis: Addiction and PTSD

PTSD brings about similar changes to brain chemistry to the chronic abuse of addictive substances, whether legal or illicit. Oftentimes, the same trauma that triggers the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can also provoke patterns of substance abuse. Stress and addiction are closely interrelated.

When substance use disorder and mental health conditions like PTSD present at the same time, this is known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.

One of the most common unhealthy responses to experiencing a traumatic effect is to rely on alcohol or drugs as a temporary coping mechanism. Unfortunately, self-medication will do nothing to address the cause of this issue. Over time, self-medicating is likely to worsen both conditions, and also to complicate treatment. If a loved one witnesses or experiences a traumatic event, look for signs of regular intoxication or social withdrawal in the aftermath, both possible indicators that a dual diagnosis is developing.

After someone experiences trauma, the natural production of endorphins in the brain decreases. Endorphins are brain chemicals associated with mood. Individuals with PTSD developing often find that using addictive substances causes an increase in endorphin production, balancing out the insufficiency of these feel-good chemicals. 

Many people self-medicating to alleviate the disturbing symptoms of PTSD find that tolerance, dependence, and addiction to the substance develop. Not only will self-medication not cure PTSD, it can also introduce new problems in the form of substance use disorder. 

How, the, are these two conditions interlinked?

What is the Association Between PTSD and Substance Abuse?

Studies show that substance abuse most commonly occurs with PTSD, GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), and major depressive disorder. 

Those seeking PTSD treatment are 14 times more susceptible to alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder. The same data indicates that those with co-occurring PTSD and addiction more frequently abuse alcohol than illicit drugs. 

Other studies show that veterans and other service members who report heavy drinking are more prone to depression and PTSD than those who conform to moderate drinking guidelines. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, combat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder frequently report binge drinking

For most people abusing substances in response to post-traumatic stress disorder are simply trying to alleviate or avoid the disruptive symptoms associated with this condition. 

Can Substance Abuse Make PTSD Worse?

Sustained substance use brings about changes to brain neurocircuitry. If you abuse substances to the point of physical dependence developing, you will need to consume the substance to feel normal and to stave off withdrawal symptoms. 

Abusing substances will not effectively reduce the symptoms and could likely inflame the symptoms long-term. Instead, discover as much as you can about the proven benefits of integrated therapy and start moving toward a life free of addiction and fear. 

PTSD and Substance Abuse Among Combat Veterans

The VA reports that veterans have a high risk profile for both PTSD and addiction, especially those deployed to active combat zones. Almost one in three veterans seeking substance use disorder treatment also has post-traumatic stress disorder. More than 20% of veterans diagnosed with PTSD also have a dual diagnosis of substance use disorder. 

Regrettably, many veterans diagnosed with PTSD are prescribed prescription opioids, anxiety medications, and sedatives. All of these medications can be addictive when used long-term. 

Whatever the source of your addiction and mental health issues, we can help you unpack both conditions simultaneously at our licensed Californian treatment center.

california beach representing heroin detox at california detox center.

Treatment of PTSD and Substance Abuse at California Detox

All cases of co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse are unique, meaning the most effective dual diagnosis treatment will always be highly personalized. Integrated treatment is proven more effective than treating each condition in isolation. 

Here at California Detox, treatment is preceded by detoxification. Whether you are addicted to alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs, you first need to purge your body of the toxins and toxic by-products of those substances. Engage with a supervised medical detox at our licensed beachside facility to streamline the intensity of withdrawal.

Once detoxed, you can engage with treatment at all levels of ASAM’s continuum of care, from outpatient and remote therapy through to residential rehab. 

Whether you require inpatient or outpatient rehab, behavioral interventions are pivotal to the treatment of substance use disorders and mental health conditions. 

By participating in psychotherapy sessions, you’ll discover how your thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors are closely interrelated. You will also isolate what triggers you to use addictive substances, and you will learn how to implement healthy coping mechanisms to counter stress. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), exposure therapy, and family therapy can all be effective for the integrated treatment of PTSD and addiction. 

Additionally, counseling, holistic therapies, and MAT (medication-assisted treatment) may complement talk therapy sessions for a whole-body approach to recovery from addiction and PTSD. 

Free yourself from a dual diagnosis of addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder by reaching out to California Detox today. Call 949.567.8790.


PTSD is a problem that can lead to substance abuse and, in turn, addiction by people trying to self-medicate or use substances to escape previous trauma.
While substance abuse is not a symptom of PTSD, the two problems often go hand-in-hand and many people who are struggling with PTSD have a substance abuse problem.


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