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Mental Health for Veterans – The Link Between Addiction and PTSD

a person looks sadly from a window

2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also deal with addiction. There’s a strong link between addiction and PTSD, one that doctors have spent a lot of time investigating. 

To fully understand the relationship between addiction and PTSD, it’s important to establish a baseline understanding. What is PTSD? What is addiction? What treatments are available, and what is being done for veteran mental health?

We’ve assembled a guide to help you learn why addiction and PTSD often go hand-in-hand, and how you can get PTSD and addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one.

What is PTSD?

The human brain and spirit are only equipped to handle so much. Past a certain point, the brain begins to seek coping mechanisms. 

These coping mechanisms are often prompted by an array of haunting symptoms. These symptoms are often caused by extreme or recurring traumatic events. 

Some common symptoms of PTSD are:

  • Issues with short-term, long-term, or working memories
  • Low self-worth
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Flashbacks
  • Panic attacks 
  • Aggression, violence, and rage 
  • Self-destructive behavior, which can manifest as substance use disorder
  • Issues with interpersonal relationships 

These symptoms can crop up often and become a painful part of everyday life. For some veterans, they are often prompted by reminders of incidents, which are often referred to as triggers. 

For instance, you may hear more about PTSD awareness around the Fourth of July. All the fireworks often trigger memories of mortar shells, bullets, and explosions during combat.

These triggers can often prompt flashbacks, panic attacks, anxiety, and so forth. In an effort to self-medicate and manage these symptoms, many veterans often develop substance use disorder. 

Often, post-traumatic stress disorder can erode a sense of self, safety, and support systems. That’s why it’s important to address veteran mental health

What is Addiction?

How does the brain cope during high-trauma events? The brain and the body’s first impulse is to protect itself. 

To do so, the brain often increases endorphin levels. This helps reduce the amount of pain you feel. The goal of your body/brain is to help you survive another day. 

Thanks to our well-honed fight or flight instincts, our body instinctively knows that collapsing during traumatic situations can be fatal. Instead, your body supercharges through, with the end goal of survival.

However, you can’t maintain this extreme pressure forever. Once the immediate trauma ends, endorphin levels then drop. As the brain tries to process both endorphin withdrawal and the trauma itself, substance use disorder sometimes results. 

Substances often mimic the brain’s endorphin shield that persisted through the trauma itself. That’s why they are so tempting—substances help numb emotional and physical pain, and provide a sense of safety that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.

However, post-trauma treatment can often foster deeper issues when it comes to treating substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The Relationship between Addiction and PTSD

Experts have established a strong link between addiction and PTSD. However, this link often starts in the doctor’s office. 

When veterans return from highly traumatic situations, they are often prescribed anxiety meds to help them cope. These medications are often addictive, which is an issue that hasn’t received the attention it deserves in recent years. 

However, the issue of prescription drugs goes beyond anxiety meds. Many veterans return with combat injuries of some sort. These injuries require intense painkillers, such as sedatives, benzodiazepines, or prescription opioids. 

Painkillers like OxyContin are highly addictive. Even though there’s a purpose for taking them, they often prompt dependence. Then, once the initial injury is healed, veterans start spiraling when it’s time to quit. 

This compulsive behavior often starts with the best of intentions. Trying to transition into healing is difficult, and it’s even worse when the medications that help turn into a source of addiction. 

Of course, the relationship between addiction and PTSD goes far beyond prescription issues. 

Substance Use Disorder 

Alcohol and illegal substances are cornerstones of substance abuse disorder. Often, drugs like heroin are far easier to obtain than prescription medications, depending on where you live and what your sources are.

Often, illicit drugs are a last resort for many military members with PTSD. There are strict consequences for using drugs while in the military. That’s why many service members often turn to prescription medication or alcohol first. 

Because the military is often a hypermasculine environment, alcohol use is normalized. Our alcohol-friendly culture often doesn’t educate adults on what binge drinking actually is. 

Many people binge drink without realizing they are. It’s a slow slide into alcoholism, and addiction can creep up on you. Alcohol is an accepted part of both military and civilian life, and alcohol is legal if you’re over 21 in the United States.

PTSD and addiction treatment are now increasingly common. So many service members have spoken up regarding their experiences returning home from active combat situations. Their voices have helped raise awareness, inform treatment plans, and more. 

That’s why seeking PTSD and addiction treatment is crucial. While there are many solutions—such as rehab, therapy, or support groups—it’s important to have a balanced approach. 

Look for an expert that prioritizes treatment for both addiction and PTSD. For many veterans, these disorders tend to feed off each other. Neither one occurred in a vacuum, so they need to be treated in tandem. 

Treating Addiction and PTSD

When treating addiction and PTSD, seeking the right kind of help is important. For instance, a detox program may be right for you. For others, an intensive outpatient program might be necessary. 

A knowledgeable professional will help recommend the right program for you. This will change based on your particular substance issue, history with PTSD, personal experiences, and so much more. 

All that you need to do is be honest. Your honesty and willingness to seek help are a huge step in the right direction toward recovery. 

If you’re seeking help for addiction and PTSD, contact us today. We can help!

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