Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Addiction

March 24, 2014

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that may bring on symptoms that include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts surrounding the event(s) that caused the PTSD. If the symptoms disappear after 3-5 months, it is called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). If, however, symptoms persist for a longer duration, it graduates to PTSD diagnosis.

Symptoms of PTSD

Persistent re-experiencing of:

  • Flashback memories
  • Recurring distressing dreams
  • Subjective re-experiencing of the traumatic event
  • Intense negative psychological or physiological responses to any reminder of the traumatic event

Persistent avoidance and emotional numbing:

  • Avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma such as certain thoughts, feelings or talking about the event
  • Avoidance of behaviors, places or people which may lead to distressing memories
  • Inability to recall major parts of the trauma (repression or suppression)
  • Decreased involvement in significant life activities
  • The expectation that one’s future will be somehow constrained in ways not normal to other people

Persistent symptoms of increased arousal not present before:

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Problems with anger, concentration or hypervigilance

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Addiction

It’s not surprising that PTSD and chemical dependency are commonly linked as co-occurring disorders. Research consistently demonstrates that individuals who suffer from trauma or PTSD are more likely to have problems with substance dependence.

For example, in a large survey of individuals from communities across the United States, it was found that 34.5% of men who had PTSD at some point in their lifetime also had a problem with drug abuse or dependence. Comparable rates for women, 26.9% were also found.

So the question is, why are drug and alcohol use rates elevated in PTSD? Many researchers have proposed a number of theories that help answer these questions. Briefly outlined below are the current theories.

  1. High-Risk Theory: The high-risk theory proposes that drug and alcohol problems occur before PTSD develops. Proponents of this model believe that the use of alcohol and drugs places people at greater risk for experiencing traumatic events, and therefore, at greater risk for developing PTSD.
  2. Self-Medication Theory: The self-medication theory postulates that people with PTSD use substances as a way of reducing distress.
  3. Susceptibility Theory: The susceptibility theory suggests that some aspect of alcohol and drug use increases a person’s risk for developing PTSD symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event.
  4. Shared Vulnerability Theory: This theory argues that some people may have a genetic vulnerability, which increases the likelihood that they will develop both PTSD and substance abuse problems following a traumatic event.

But which theory is correct?

Research actually supports all of the aforementioned theories. More than anything, however, research shows that the development of co-occurring conditions of PTSD and substance abuse/dependence is truly unique to each person and is dependent upon a number of factors such as a person’s family history, age, gender, culture and whether or not they have another condition, such as depression.

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