Navigating PTSD and Substance Use for Veterans

Last Updated: October 10, 2023

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When veterans transition from military life, some turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with PTSD. However, hope shines through – effective treatment is available to address PTSD and addiction simultaneously. 

The shift to civilian life can be daunting for veterans, especially considering the impact of their military experiences. A heightened risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often leads to a struggle with substance misuse. Yet, with dedicated treatment, the path to recovery becomes achievable.

Unraveling the Layers of PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) emerges as a mental health condition after exposure to a traumatic event. This could result from direct engagement with trauma, such as facing a physical assault or other threat. It could also stem from witnessing or hearing about traumatic events involving others. When someone contends with PTSD, they might experience intrusion symptoms. These symptoms encompass flashbacks, unwelcome memories tied to the trauma, nightmares, and intense psychological responses triggered by reminders of the event.

PTSD also involves an inclination to avoid anything linked to the trauma. Changes in mood and behavior become noticeable. Individuals might experience persistent negative emotions, harbor self-blame regarding the traumatic event, or detach themselves from social connections. Encountering positive emotions like happiness becomes an uphill battle, while sudden outbursts of anger, impulsive behaviors, and sleep disruptions might surface.

Prevalence of PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Veterans grappling with PTSD face an elevated risk of substance use disorders (SUD) or addictions. When both PTSD and substance use disorder coexist, they’re referred to as co-occurring disorders. Research highlights that nearly half of individuals with PTSD also experience co-occurring substance use disorders. Furthermore, data from the Veterans Administration indicates that more than 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also confront a substance use disorder.

The Connection Between Alcohol Addiction and PTSD

For veterans dealing with PTSD, alcohol can become a temporary escape from negative emotions or haunting memories. Regrettably, as time goes by, larger quantities of alcohol are needed to achieve the same effect due to tolerance. Left untreated, PTSD can increase the risk of alcohol addiction, if a veteran continues to drink as a coping mechanism. Studies show that as many as two-thirds of veterans seeking assistance for alcohol addiction also grapple with PTSD.

Exploring Drug Addiction and PTSD

Veterans contending with PTSD are also prone to developing drug addictions. Research involving veterans from conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan reveals that male veterans might turn to drugs as a way to manage PTSD symptoms. In the case of female veterans, drug use might worsen future PTSD symptoms. This suggests that the interaction between drug addiction and PTSD differs between genders. Combat-wounded veterans might also be at risk of developing dependence on prescription painkillers used for chronic pain management.

Unveiling PTSD Triggers and Symptoms in Veterans

Veterans coping with PTSD often encounter triggers that initiate symptom episodes. These triggers could be things that remind them of their trauma. For instance, loud noises reminiscent of explosions or gunfire might lead to angry outbursts, heightened startle responses, or behaviors like substance misuse. When PTSD symptoms manifest, they generally fall into these categories:

Intrusion Symptoms

  • Recurrent thoughts about the traumatic event
  • Distressing nightmares linked to the trauma
  • Flashbacks resembling the traumatic event
  • Heightened stress upon encountering reminders of the trauma
  • Physical reactions upon exposure to trauma reminders (e.g., elevated heart rate)

Avoidance Symptoms

  • Efforts to steer clear of trauma reminders
  • Attempts to block out distressing memories or thoughts related to the trauma

Mood Shifts

  • Trouble recalling specific trauma details
  • Negative thoughts, such as believing the world is unsafe
  • Self-blame or blaming others for the event
  • Consistently experiencing negative emotions like guilt, anger, and fear
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Emotional detachment from others
  • Inability to experience happiness or joy

Behavioral Changes

  • Sudden outbursts of anger without warning
  • Engagement in self-destructive behaviors
  • Hypervigilance regarding surroundings
  • Easily startling in reaction to the environment
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances

Empowering Veterans with Effective Treatment

Veterans grappling with co-occurring PTSD and SUD achieve progress through comprehensive treatment approaches:

  • Therapies: Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) and prolonged exposure (PE), both forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, play vital roles in addressing co-occurring PTSD and SUD in veterans.
  • Medications: Medications assist veterans in managing symptoms of both PTSD and addiction. Antidepressants help alleviate PTSD symptoms, while medications also aid in addressing drug and alcohol withdrawal and cravings.
  • Group Therapy: Group therapy serves as a cornerstone of treatment for veterans. Some treatment centers offer specialized groups for trauma survivors, including those tailored exclusively for veterans.
  • Inpatient Rehabilitation: In specific scenarios, veterans may benefit from commencing their recovery journey with inpatient rehabilitation. These programs provide a controlled environment, removing triggers during treatment.

Extending a Helping Hand to Veterans

For those supporting veterans dealing with PTSD and addiction, these steps can make a meaningful difference:

  • Enhance Your Understanding: Learn about their symptoms and triggers. This knowledge empowers you to provide extra support during difficult times and helps you recognize situations that might upset the veteran.
  • Practice Patience: Veterans with PTSD might exhibit different behavior or feel sad and angry. Remember, it’s because of their mental health, not something you did. Kindness and patience go a long way.
  • Encourage Seeking Help: The best outcomes for veterans with co-occurring PTSD and SUD come from seeking professional treatment. Encourage them to reach out, and offer assistance in setting up appointments; you can also consider accompanying them to their appointments.

Additional Resources for Veterans

For veterans seeking more information on PTSD, consider these resources:

  • VA Benefits Hotline: Call 855-586-2889 Monday to Friday, between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. ET.
  • The VA Mental Health Page: Explore the VA’s mental health page for details on programs and treatment options.
  • National Center for PTSD: Find research and treatment information on PTSD at this site.
  • Access expert advice on mental health treatment post-deployment at this site.

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