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What Is the Connection between PTSD and Addiction?

By Nicole Etolen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is typically thought of as a condition that affects soldiers returning from combat situations, but it can actually affect nearly anyone, at any age, who has suffered through a traumatic event. PTSD and addiction do share a likely connection, as one may be more likely to increase the risk of the other. It is important to note, however, that not everyone who suffers from PTSD will develop an addiction.

Addiction can occur in many forms, including drugs and alcohol, gambling, shopping, and risky sexual behaviors. Addictions can also be physical, in which the body craves the substance, or psychological, in which the imagined reward is mental. The connection between PTSD and addiction usually involves use of alcohol or narcotics, especially opiates and other narcotic pain relievers, although gambling problems are also prevalent among this group.

Narcotic pain relievers are one of the most common elements in PTSD and addiction, especially in military members returning from combat or those who have suffered a serious physical injury during their trauma. These types of pain relievers are extremely addictive by nature, and when used for too long, it can be difficult for patients to stop taking them. While prescription pain relievers are beneficial in the beginning to help an injured patient get past the physical pain, eventually they may become a crutch to help alleviate emotional suffering. In some cases, when prescription pain relievers are no longer available, sufferers may move on to illegal street drugs, such as heroine.

Alcohol is another major substance connected to PTSD and addiction, affecting as many as 75 percent of sufferers. It is especially common in women who have gone through a traumatic experience, such as sexual abuse or assault. Drinking to the point of intoxication can actually worsen the symptoms of PTSD, as alcohol is a strong depressant. It also lowers inhibitions, which may increase the risk of the user become violent or engaging in other risky behaviors.

Treating patients with both PTSD and addiction can be challenging because both problems need to be addressed at the same time. Patients may need to enter a rehab facility to overcome the physical part of their addiction, but the psychological issues of both PTSD and addiction can take years to overcome. Some may need to learn alternate ways of coping with stress while also getting to the root cause of the disorder. Talk therapy with a qualified psychologist or therapist is often recommended.

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