Current research is figuring out ways that people can be successfully treated for both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders. It is not uncommon for these two issues to co-occur. Many people with PTSD turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with the negative symptoms of PTSD: nightmares, flashbacks, intense fear and anxiety. To help people struggling with both PTSD and addiction, both disorders have to be addressed and treated.
PTSD and Addiction
More than 20% of military veterans suffer from both post-traumatic stress disorder and a substance use disorder. PTSD is more common in veterans than in the general population, but anyone who experiences something traumatic, including abuse, childhood neglect or a violent assault, may develop PTSD. Someone who has a drinking or drug use problem prior to experiencing something traumatic is at the greatest risk for developing co-occurring PTSD and addiction. However, even those who were sober previously are at risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Treating PTSD and Addiction Together
Treating these two disorders together isn’t easy, but it is important. If someone receives treatment for PTSD but continues to drink or use drugs, the treatment won’t be as effective, and vice versa. The disorders are inextricably linked and must be treated together for the best chance of success and for the patient to be able to move on and live a normal and happy life. A breakthrough in treating PTSD and addiction is called Concurrent Treatment of Substance Use Disorders Using Prolonged Exposure, or COPE. The strategy uses a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy for treating the addiction and exposure therapy for treating PTSD. COPE has been tested in several locations by various researchers and has been found to be effective for many patients. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a recognized type of psychotherapy that is used to treat a variety of mental illnesses and addiction. It involves working with a therapist one-on-one to learn torecognize negative thought and behavior patterns. The therapist then helps the patient come up with strategies for changing those thoughts and behaviors. For example, a therapist may guide a patient to realize that she thinks she needs a drink in order to feel relaxed. The patient then recognizes that thought in her everyday life and replaces it with something more positive, such as going for a walk to relax instead of having a drink. Exposure therapy is a commonly used technique for treating PTSD. It involves exposing a patient to what scares him in a safe and controlled environment. This helps the patient to stop associating the thing, the memory or the situation with fear. For example, a veteran may be afraid to drive because of an experience he had while serving overseas. A therapist would work with him to talk about the experience repeatedly and then to eventually get close to a car and even drive it. The repeated exposure, while safe, helps to detach the fear from the act of driving. COPE has been proven to be effective for many people struggling with PTSD and addiction. Unfortunately, it isn’t a foolproof technique, as some people do not respond well to exposure therapy.The most important finding, however, is that it is possible to successfully treat both disorders together. When both are addressed, the patient stands a better chance of recovery from both PTSD and addiction.