PTSD, Veterans and Substance Abuse

The PTSD veterans deal with is a widespread and often debilitating problem stemming from military service. 

Veterans with PTSD will tend to have trouble at home and work and throughout their everyday life when it’s untreated. The symptoms of PTSD in veterans will often also lead to substance use disorders.

There are treatment options available that are highly effective for PTSD veterans suffer from, as well as for co-occurring substance use disorders. There are also many resources available that can provide other forms of help, like financial grants for disabled veterans with PTSD.

Below, we discuss PTSD in military veterans, what it can look like, and how mental disorders can play a role in addiction and trauma.

 

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a mental health disorder. 

  • PTSD occurs in people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. 
  • We most often associate the condition with combat veterans. 
  • It can occur in other scenarios as well. For example, being the victim of a natural disaster, sexual violence, or physical abuse can cause PSTD.

Posttraumatic stress disorder was initially known as shell shock following World War I when servicemembers returned to civilian life and combat fatigue after World War II.

While we do link it to combat veterans, a significant amount of people are affected by it in general. For example, around 3.5% of adults in the United States will experience PTSD in a given year. Women are twice as likely as men to go through PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD. 

Along with combat exposure and combat trauma being a reason for PTSD among veterans, there are also links between this mental health condition and sexual harassment or sexual assault while in the military. Regardless of gender, you can be a victim of military sexual trauma or MST, although female veterans are more likely to experience this type of trauma. 

 

Symptoms of PTSD in Veterans

The symptoms of PTSD in veterans often revolve around having disturbing, intense thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic experience long after the events end.

Usually, the scenarios creating the trauma and negative emotions are life-threatening events.  A combat veteran with PTSD could experience nightmares or flashbacks. If you have PTSD, you might feel anger or have angry outbursts and experience sadness or detachment from the people around you.

You could find that you avoid people, places, or things that remind you of your trauma.

If you have combat-related PTSD, you could also experience very strong reactions to ordinary things like a loud noise.

Specific symptoms that can happen with PTSD are:

  • Intrusion symptoms include intrusive thoughts like distressing dreams or memories, as well as flashbacks. Sometimes, flashbacks can be so vivid and realistic that you might think you’re reliving the trauma.
  • Avoidance symptoms can include avoiding reminders of the event, including situations, objects, people, places, and activities. You might want to avoid talking about the traumatic event or thinking about it.
  • Mood and cognitive changes can be symptoms of PTSD. For example, you might have distorted feelings about the event, like blaming yourself or feeling shame. It can be hard for some people who have post-traumatic stress disorder to experience positive feelings or emotions.
  • The fourth category symptoms can fall into is arousal and reactivity changes. You could be angry or irritable or behave self-destructively. You might be startled easily, have trouble focusing, or have sleep disturbances.

When you experience a traumatic event, you may have symptoms like those above for days or weeks after. That’s a normal response. For a diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms must last for more than a month. For a diagnosis, the symptoms also affect your daily life, cause significant distress and impact your functionality.

Acute stress disorder is another one of the anxiety disorders related to trauma. Acute stress disorder is usually shorter-term than chronic PTSD. Untreated, acute stress disorder can progress to PTSD. 

PTSD commonly occurs with other mental health conditions, including substance use, depressive disorder, and anxiety.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, around 11-20 out of 100 veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year. 

 

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among Veterans

The PTSD veterans suffer from when untreated can contribute to substance use disorders.

  • More than 20% of veterans with PTSD also have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. 
  • When you have untreated PTSD, it can be more difficult to overcome addiction. 
  • People who seek treatment for PTSD are 14 times more likely to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder.

There are multiple links between addiction and PTSD. For example, if you have post-traumatic stress disorder, it can change your brain in many of the same ways drugs and alcohol do.

  • Trauma is often linked to substance use disorders and can trigger them.
  • If you have symptoms of PTSD, you might also want to self-medicate to deal with what you’re going through. Self-medication triggers addiction.
  • After you go through a traumatic event or series of events, your brain naturally produces fewer of the chemicals that make you feel happy, like endorphins. You may use drugs or alcohol to enhance your mood and eventually become dependent on them.

 

 

Evidence-Based Treatment for PTSD and Addiction

When you’re a veteran, your experiences are very complex. Understanding this complexity has to be part of your treatment plan.

When you have an addiction disorder and another mental health disorder like PTSD, it’s known as a co-occurring diagnosis. PTSD and addiction need to receive effective treatments together because both impact the brain. Treatment should work on unraveling and repairing some of the damage of both. You should work with a qualified, experienced mental health provider. 

 

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is also called talk therapy. There is a wide range of subtypes of talk therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one particular type of talk therapy we often use to treat both PTSD and addiction disorders. CBT for PTSD focuses on trauma, which is central to the treatment.

Talk therapy may also include exposure therapy. 

The goal of CBT for trauma is to identify, understand and ultimately change thinking and behavioral patterns. You can turn negative thinking into more positive emotions. 

 

EMDR

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EMDR is a type of psychotherapy where you process memories related to your trauma. During EMDR, you might pay attention to a back-and-forth movement or a sound while you think about the traumatic memory.

 

Medication

There are different types of medications helpful in treating PTSD and co-occurring mental health disorders. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly used. These medicines are antidepressants that can also help with symptoms of anxiety.

 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis professional treatment is what we talk about above for psychiatric disorders. The term refers to mental health services when diagnosed with a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder. For example, you might have a diagnosis of PTSD along with alcohol use disorder.

There is a higher risk of complications and adverse outcomes if both conditions aren’t appropriately treated, and the best outcomes typically occur when you receive treatment for both simultaneously.

If you’d like to learn more about dual diagnosis treatment for PTSD and drug or alcohol addiction, call Opus Health at 855-953-1345. We’re here and can talk to you more about it. We can work specifically with the veteran population, and we understand your unique circumstances and challenges related to combat experience and military service. 

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