Substance Use Disorders & PTSD Connection

It’s no secret that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be debilitating at times in one’s life. It’s also no secret that PTSD can negatively impact the effectiveness of other mental health treatments. The Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center estimates that one in three individuals seeking treatment for substance use disorders (SUD) also suffer symptoms of PTSD, presenting a challenge for mental health professionals.

While exposure therapy has been shown to be effective at treating individuals with co-occurring PTSD & SUD, only recently have more treatment settings began to use this method. Another barrier to treating co-occurring PTSD and SUD is the fact that many who suffer from PTSD don’t realize it, making psychoeducation on symptoms all the more important in compelling these people to seek treatment. The American Addiction Center helps people do this with four self-diagnosable symptoms that can help people determine if they should seek treatment:

  • Re-experiencing trauma through flashbacks, nightmares, or frightening thoughts.
  • Difficulty sleeping, being on edge, having angry outbursts, or being easily startled.
  • Avoidance of people, places, or things that may serve as a reminder of trauma.
  • Loss of interest in usual activities, distorted feelings of guild, and negative self-image.

PTSD and SUD have a complicated relationship that can make treatment more of a challenge. The high levels of stress associated with PTSD makes individuals more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol as a distraction. For people with the co-occuring disorders, drugs provide temporary relief from symptoms of their PTSD by using drugs that increase dopamine levels in the brain. When the drugs wear off, however, dopamine levels drop to below normal levels and exacerbates PTSD symptoms, incentivizing continued drug use. This highlights the importance of treating underlying stress disorders concurrently with SUD treatment as a means of maximizing effectiveness.

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