PTSD and Addiction Recovery: A Process of Healing

“Every day I wake up to a different version of me. Will I be happy or sad, will I feel safe or scared? The things I feel because of my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) aren’t invisible to others. I like to think of myself as a warrior in my own right, because I face invisible battles every day.”

One person shared their personal experience of living with PTSD via Time to Change, a UK-based organization which seeks to combat mental health stigmas. PTSD affects so many people each year, and with symptoms ranging from nightmares and unwanted memories to hyper-vigilance, guilt, and self-destructive behavior, it’s safe to say that PTSD can disrupt daily life. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) emphasizes that PTSD will affect about 7 or 8 of every 100 people at some point in their lives; re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, reactivity symptoms, and cognition and mood symptoms can add a layer of complexity to navigating daily life. Those in addiction recovery have even more complex issues to work through – but it’s not impossible by any means.

What You Need to Know About Co-Occurring Disorders

What is a Co-Occurring Disorder?

Co-occurring disorders are defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as the coexistence of both a mental health condition and a substance use disorder (SUD). Approximately 7.9 million adults were estimated to have a co-occurring disorder in 2014, but what many don’t realize is that co-occurring disorders require specialized treatment in order for a person to optimize their results in recovery. If treatment is only focused on the addiction, then mental illness symptoms could worsen; even withdrawal from substance abuse can cause the exacerbation of some PTSD symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.

How Co-Occurring Disorders Develop

The causes behind co-occurring disorders are two-fold. In some cases, substance abuse brings about symptoms of a mental illness, which eventually develops if treatment is not sought early on. For example, heroin may worsen already-vulnerable qualities such as low energy, nervousness, social isolation or suicidal thoughts. On the other hand, substances may be used in an attempt to “self-medicate”, which means that a person is trying to mask the symptoms of their mental illness by drinking or using drugs. No matter how it occurs, co-occurring disorders need careful treatment in order for a person to move through recovery smoothly.

Who Can Develop a Co-Occurring Disorder?

Anyone can develop a co-occurring disorder. For example, Dr. Marty Pentz, an expert of social work in Indianapolis, stated in a 2017 presentation that PTSD among male veterans is around 30.9%, with female veterans at around 26.9%. These numbers are only what has been reported, however. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the resources available for treating co-occurring disorders, and this is what leads to the worsening of symptoms – which only further perpetuates a negative cycle.

Strategies for Healing in Addiction Recovery

Co-occurring disorders are complex, but they are treatable with the right form of integrated care. A number of treatment components can work together to create a more personalized program, which may include:

  •    Individual psychotherapy – a therapist can work closely with a client to help them uncover some of the pain they’ve been harboring, as well as the ways in which their symptoms and previous trauma have affected their mentality of themselves and of their life as a whole. Through close collaboration, those in recovery can explore a number of topics such as relapse prevention, self-esteem, trauma and more – to build their recovery toolbox.
  •    Group therapy sessions – along with individual psychotherapy, group therapy sessions can give a person further education about their disorders in a safe setting. Other people who attend group sessions are going through similar challenges, which makes certain topics of recovery that much easier to discuss.
  •    12-Step Program support – programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) give many people that additional structure and support that they need to succeed in recovery. Weekly meetings, sponsorship, and the 12-Step principles truly guide people into living a lifestyle that is conducive to their sobriety; strengthened spirituality helps many with co-occurring disorders feel hope that it does get better.
  •    Medication assisted treatment – for some individuals, medication is the right step because it helps mitigate some of the painful effects of withdrawal and/or symptoms of mental illness. Several medications have been approved for use in addiction recovery, with little concern over addictive properties.

PTSD can make addiction recovery that much more challenging, but that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. If anything, it simply means that you need to take extra precautions in recognizing when you’re being triggered, along with using the many resources that you’ve gained throughout your time in treatment thus far.

Don’t wait any longer to begin the journey towards recovery today. Hope is not lost, and healing is right around the corner.