PTSD and addiction

During the First World War, “shellshock” was a common term employed to describe soldiers suffering from a variety of symptoms, including anxiety, trembling, dizziness and, in extreme cases, an inability to move or speak. However, it wasn’t until many years later that these symptoms were more accurately identified as indicators of what we now understand as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD and addiction sadly go hand-in-hand with the two conditions fuelling each other, making life incredibly difficult. At Oasis Runcorn, we recognise the intertwined intricacies of these co-existing disorders, but our treatment programmes can allow you to break free from the cycle of addiction while also having major knock-on benefits for PTSD.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, is a mental health disorder that may manifest after having a traumatic experience. PTSD is not selective and can affect people from all walks of life and can drastically impact one’s life quality.

Around 3.9% to 5.6% of the global population experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with considerably higher rates in regions where trauma is part of daily life due to high crime rates, war, poverty and other difficult issues.

Common triggers or causes that could lead to the development of PTSD include:

  • Combat and warfare
  • Natural disasters
  • Serious accidents
  • Violent assaults
  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Severe illness or medical procedures
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Domestic violence

Understanding co-occurring PTSD and addiction

The co-existence of PTSD and addiction is alarmingly frequent, with 39% of people with PTSD also struggling with alcohol addiction, 34.1% with cocaine addiction, and 44.8% with cannabis addiction. 59% of young people living with PTSD develop a substance abuse disorder at some point in their lives which is far higher than the general population.

Typical instances of the dual diagnosis of PTSD and addiction comprise:

Alcohol addiction and PTSD

Alcohol use disorder is prevalent among people living with PTSD as they may resort to alcohol consumption to dull the emotional distress of their trauma. However, excessive drinking can exacerbate PTSD symptoms and complicate the recovery journey.

PTSD and drug addiction

Similarly, people with PTSD may use drugs to get some relief from their symptoms. This can ultimately result in drug addiction which intensifies the symptoms of PTSD over time and complicates treatment further. Once PTSD and drug addiction have taken hold, it can be incredibly hard to manage and recover.

Behavioural addictions and PTSD

Behavioural addictions, such as shopping, gambling or sex, may also arise in people with PTSD as they try to escape their emotional suffering. These behaviours can also magnify symptoms and obstruct the recovery process.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD can appear in various forms, with sufferers each experiencing the condition in their own unique way. However, some common PTSD symptoms include:

Recurrent memories, nightmares, thoughts and flashbacks…

During these experiences, it’s as if the brain is reliving the traumatic event, often because it hasn’t fully processed the experience or hasn’t been able to integrate the traumatic memories into the person’s understanding of the world.

Avoiding anything that reminds you of the traumatic incident…

Avoidance is a common coping mechanism used by those with PTSD. By avoiding reminders of the trauma, the brain attempts to protect the individual from distressing thoughts, feelings and physiological reactions. However, this avoidance can limit recovery and lead to the prolongation of PTSD symptoms.

Mood alterations such as anxiety, depression or irritability…

Anxiety is often a result of the heightened “fight or flight” response, while depression can occur due to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness about the symptoms and the impact of the trauma. Irritability may arise from the constant tension and arousal associated with PTSD.

Heightened reactivity or arousal…

This is also a consequence of the heightened “fight or flight” response that comes with PTSD. The brain is in a constant state of high alert for danger, even when there is no immediate threat. This heightened reactivity can lead to sleep difficulties and a tendency to be easily startled or frightened.

Why do PTSD and addiction so commonly co-exist?

PTSD and addiction frequently intersect for a number of different reasons, including:

The desire to escape…

People living with PTSD often turn to substances or addictive behaviours as a mechanism to distance themselves from the recurrent memories, flashbacks or nightmares that their traumatic past evokes. However, this coping strategy frequently devolves into an addiction as the individual grows to rely on drugs or alcohol for relief or control.

Effects on the brain…

Both PTSD and addiction can change the way the brain responds to stress and affect your ability to cope with emotions. This double-pronged attack on the brain then increases the odds of both conditions developing concurrently.


PTSD can be an incredibly isolating experience, with victims distancing themselves from loved ones due to feelings of guilt or shame or fear of traumatic memories being triggered. Addiction is at its most powerful when it is able to cut a person off from their support systems and keep them trapped in a destructive cycle.

Risky behaviour…

PTSD can also lead to risky behaviour, such as substance abuse, due to apathy or distorted decision-making. This is especially true for sexual abuse victims, who often grapple with feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth.

Genetic factors…

There is also a possible genetic link in a person’s likelihood of developing both addiction and PTSD. Those who have parents with addiction or mental health issues may therefore be more vulnerable.

PTSD and addiction treatment

Addressing addiction when there is co-occurring PTSD can be very difficult as these conditions often feed and intensify each other. Individuals with PTSD may encounter unique hurdles in recovery, such as:

  • Overwhelming emotions and traumatic memories
  • Struggling to trust others or form bonds in group therapy
  • A higher risk of relapse
  • Sleep disorders (common amongst those with PTSD)
  • Challenges in maintaining motivation, especially during detox when mental health symptoms may emerge

Oasis Runcorn has a proven record of effectively treating addiction in individuals with co-occurring disorders, including PTSD. However, it’s crucial that the symptoms of PTSD are stable enough to undergo the rehab process.

Before beginning your treatment journey at Oasis Runcorn, it is crucial to consult medical and mental health professionals about managing your PTSD symptoms. This may entail therapy, medication, therapy or both. Once your PTSD is being appropriately managed, the rehab process can commence.

Which addiction therapies are beneficial for PTSD?

Certain highly effective rehab therapies can also assist with PTSD symptoms as a knock-on effect:

  • Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): Originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder, DBT skills are widely applicable for managing distressing emotions and improving relationships. It focuses on the concept of mindfulness and developing skills to cope with stress, regulate emotions and improve relationships. DBT can help those struggling with PTSD, and addiction learn to handle triggers and counteract unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance use and addictive behaviours.
  • Group therapy: For individuals with co-occurring PTSD and addiction, the benefits of group therapy are manifold. This therapeutic approach fosters a sense of camaraderie and community among those grappling with similar challenges, providing much-needed emotional support. As members share their experiences and coping strategies, others can gain insights and practical advice that can aid their own recovery journey. This sense of community can help people feel less isolated and equip them with valuable knowledge about the healing process.

Begin the recovery journey today

If you or a loved one is battling PTSD and addiction, remember that help is within reach. Reach out to Oasis Runcorn today and initiate your recovery journey. We are devoted to guiding you towards recovery and a fresh start in life.

Frequently asked questions

Is addiction treatment a cure for PTSD?
While addiction treatment is not a “cure” for PTSD, it can have many benefits for the symptoms of PTSD and enhance your happiness and sense of well-being. Rehab therapies can help you work through memories and emotions linked to the trauma and develop new coping strategies without turning to substances or addictive behaviours.
Can PTSD medication lead to addiction?
Although some medications prescribed for PTSD can lead to addiction, the risk is greatly reduced if used according to the prescription and your doctor’s instructions. However, some drugs prescribed for PTSD can be addictive if misused. It is, therefore, critical to voice any addiction concerns to your doctor and follow their advice to the letter. They can guide you towards the safest and most effective PTSD treatment options.