Self-Medicating—A Risky Form of Self-Treatment for PTSD

Why drugs and alcohol won't make things better for you

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People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly use or abuse drugs and/or alcohol. This self-treatment with substances, known as self-medicating, may help to explain the high rates of substance use disorders among people with PTSD.

PTSD and Substance Use Statistics

Consider the statistics:

  • Around 6 percent to 8 percent of adults in the general population United States have PTSD and around 10 percent to 30 percent of veterans have PTSD.
  • Among those with lifetime PTSD, approximately 46 percent are estimated to also have a drug or alcohol use disorder.
  • People with PTSD are up to 14 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder than people without PTSD.

The high rate of co-occurrence between PTSD and substance use has led researchers to try and better understand this relationship so that treatments can be targeted more effectively.

Substance Use as Self-Treatment

Substance use disorders are more likely to follow the development of PTSD, suggesting that there is something about having PTSD that may increase the risk for substance use problems.

One major theory about the relationship between PTSD and substance use is that a person's use of drugs or alcohol is motivated by their desire to escape or numb the distressing symptoms of PTSD. This is known as self-medicating.

Researchers have found specific relationships between certain PTSD symptoms and the types of substances used.

For example, the severity of hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD is strongly connected with the use of substances that have a depressant or anti-anxiety effect, such as alcohol.

Other Theories Regarding the Relationship Between PTSD and Substance Use

It's important to note, however, that self-medication is not the only theory as to why PTSD and substance use are related, though this theory has the most evidence to date.

Other possible connections between PTSD and substance use disorders aside from self-medicating include:

  • Using substances may put you at risk to experience traumatic events, and thus, PTSD.
  • Some people may have an underlying genetic vulnerability for developing both substance use disorders and PTSD.

Consequences of Self-Treating PTSD With Substances

If you turn to drugs or alcohol (or both) when you're dealing with PTSD, it may initially help you feel less distressed, but in the long-run, self-medicating can cause many serious problems.

Substance use is a short-term fix. Your PTSD symptoms may come back even stronger, resulting in an even stronger desire to use substances. Additionally, if you have PTSD and a substance use disorder, you're at increased risk for experiencing a number of negative consequences, such as:

Getting Help Instead of Self-Treating PTSD

If you have PTSD, it makes sense that you would want to alleviate the distress that results from your PTSD symptoms, but substance use is not the answer.

Specialized treatments for people with PTSD and substance use disorders have been developed.

One such popular and well-established treatment is Seeking Safety. This treatment can help you understand the relationship between PTSD and your substance use. It can also provide you with additional skills for managing your distressing PTSD symptoms, making you less reliant on drugs and alcohol to cope.

Sources:

Flanagan JC, Korte KJ, Killeen TK, Back SE. Concurrent Treatment of Substance Use and PTSDCurrent psychiatry reports. 2016;18(8):70. doi:10.1007/s11920-016-0709-y.

Korte KJ, Bountress KE, Tomko RL, Killeen T, Moran-Santa Maria M, Back SE. Integrated Treatment of PTSD and Substance Use Disorders: The Mediating Role of PTSD Improvement in the Reduction of Depression. Lambkin FK, Barrett E, eds. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2017;6(1):9. doi:10.3390/jcm6010009.

McCauley JL, Killeen T, Gros DF, Brady KT, Back SE. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders: Advances in Assessment and TreatmentClinical psychology : a publication of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association. 2012;19(3):10.1111/cpsp.12006. doi:10.1111/cpsp.12006.

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