Mental health disorders and substance abuse often go hand in hand. In many cases, it is not clear whether mental health causes substance abuse or vice versa. However, the two often occur together. This is particularly true in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 50-60% of people who have PTSD also suffer from substance abuse. The comorbidity of PTSD and substance abuse can make it very difficult for the affected person to recover fully.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder that is caused by a person undergoing a traumatic or life-threatening event. This can include anything from soldiers at war to sexual assault victims, to car accidents, to domestic violence victims. The onset of PTSD can occur in as little as a few months after the traumatic experience and can be life long.
Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Avoidance of people or things that are a reminder of the traumatic event
- Re-experiencing the event through flashbacks or nightmares
- Arousal and reactivity, such as being “on edge” or an inability to sleep
- Cognition and mood symptoms such as feelings of guilt and a negative self-image.
Post-traumatic stress disorder induces a high level of stress for the suffering individual. People often use substances to help deal with high-stress levels. Substances can increase pleasure and help people temporarily forget about their problems. However, while these substances may temporarily help people forget about their problems, as the substance wears off, it often causes worsened PTSD symptoms. PTSD may lead a person to substance abuse, but that substance abuse often leads a person to experience worsened PTSD. It is a vicious cycle that typically requires the help of a medical professional.
When PTSD and substance abuse together, it is important to identify the two disorders and treat them in an integrated manner. If substance abuse has progressed to dependence, detox is often the first step towards recovery. Visiting a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy is an excellent step towards learning to manage stress better. Exposure therapy is another manner in which patients can learn to face their traumas head-on. In some cases, medications may be used to help manage anxiety, depression, or allow for better sleep.
Going through PTSD or substance abuse problems on their own can be a difficult process to navigate. However, dealing with the two together, can feel overwhelming and in some cases, impossible. It is important to understand that while PTSD symptoms may lead to substance abuse in an attempt to cope, substance abuse only makes PTSD symptoms worse. Having a strong support system is key to overcoming the vicious cycle of PTSD and substance abuse. In addition, having a strong network of medical professionals is key to helping the affected person live a fulfilling, healthy, and happy life. Dealing with PTSD and substance abuse can feel overwhelming. But, it is important to remember that there is hope, and there is a possibility to overcome the grueling diagnoses.