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How Treating PTSD Will Help You Heal From Addiction

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Many active military members and veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which puts enormous stress on both them and their families. Additionally, individuals with PTSD often have a co-occurring addiction. As a result of them occurring together and impacting each other, treatment must help military professionals heal from both addiction and PTSD. 

At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, active military members and veterans can receive treatment that addresses the root causes and helps clients to create long-term change. Therefore, individuals who get treatment for PTSD will heal more effectively from addiction. 

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs after a person has witnessed or experienced trauma. The term trauma, while often believed to be a definition of an event, is the response that occurs after the event. It is a lasting emotional response that is caused by a distressing event. Therefore, an active military member, veteran, or civilian can struggle with PTSD due to a variety of events and situations. 

Symptoms of PTSD will vary for each individual and may change over time. However, common symptoms include the following:

  • Agitation and irritability
  • Hostility towards themselves or others
  • Hypervigilance 
  • Isolating from others 
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Flashbacks or nightmares about the traumatic event(s)
  • Anxiety
  • General mistrust of others
  • Guilt
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • Loneliness
  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep
  • Emotional detachment 
  • Unwanted but persistent thoughts

The symptoms of PTSD will vary widely for military members and veterans. While some of the symptoms, such as mood or sleep changes, can vary normally, they are significantly more severe and persistent for individuals struggling with PTSD. This is a result of the trauma not being processed and creating lasting changes in the body and mind that disrupt how a person thinks, feels, and acts. 

PTSD in Veterans

Military service, especially combat experience, and PTSD are commonly thought of together. However, what is the actual connection, and how many veterans struggle with it? This is a question that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has considered. They have found that of the individuals who have served in the military since 2001, 15% have struggled with PTSD in the past year, and 29% will experience it within their lifetime. These are significantly higher than rates found in civilians, where six percent experience PTSD in their lifetime. 

While the connection may seem clear, there are many risk factors involved. First, combat experience puts military personnel at a higher risk of experiencing or witnessing traumatic events. This is due to their presence in a war-torn country or on the front lines, which are generally violent and dangerous. Additionally, the lifestyle of the military involves deployments, being away from family, and many stressors that come with the training. This can include training accidents or simply the stress of the schedule involved with deployment and training. 

Finally, many active military members experience military sexual trauma (MST). MST is defined as any sexual harassment or trauma that is experienced while in the military. Unfortunately, MST does not only exist in a war zone. It is something that can occur to anyone in the military during times of peace or war, and it can create lasting challenges due to its traumatic nature. 

Co-occurring PTSD and Addiction

PTSD and addiction commonly occur together in veterans. The VA explains that more than two of 10 veterans who have PTSD also have substance use disorder (SUD). Additionally, one of three veterans seeking help for a SUD also has PTSD. There is also a connection between PTSD and nicotine addiction; twice as many veterans with PTSD smoke or use nicotine compared to veterans without it. Many veterans and active duty military members struggle with a combination of these challenges.

These statistics clearly show a connection between the two. This connection is not simple. Multiple theories exist to explain the interconnectedness, and every individual’s situation is unique. However, the three predominant theories include the self-medication theory, the high-risk hypothesis, and the concept of overlapping neuro mechanisms. 

Self-Medication Theory

As one of the more dominant theories, the self-medication theory explains that addiction is a result of PTSD symptoms. When a veteran is struggling with their mental health, it is challenging to go about daily life. This might include not sleeping, detachment, or extreme irritability. Frequently this leads to drugs or alcohol being used as a way to dull the symptoms. Every veteran’s needs are unique and vary depending on the symptoms they are experiencing. For example, if someone is experiencing high fatigue, they may look for a substance that helps them to stay awake and alert. 

Over time, many people find themselves addicted physically and mentally. Physical addiction, or dependency, is a process where the brain is rewired to want more and more of a substance. Mental addiction, however, is a habit where substances are used as a way to feel better, and thus, they become a maladaptive coping mechanism for stress and other PTSD symptoms. 

At first, substance use as a method of self-medication might work. However, drug and alcohol use over time makes PTSD symptoms worse. Additionally, withdrawal due to physical dependency can increase symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and disrupted sleep. 

High-Risk Hypothesis

A person who abuses substances often puts themselves in high-risk situations. Drug use and heavy drinking are both high-risk activities that often lead to more risk. In the high-risk hypothesis, it is believed that individuals who struggle with addiction and substance use put themselves into situations where they are more likely to experience trauma. Therefore, they are more likely to have PTSD at some point. 

For veterans, this may or may not be true. Many traumatic events that occur for veterans are separate from drug and alcohol use. However, the use or dependency on drugs and alcohol might increase the risk of trauma separate from combat, such as MST. 

Overlapping Neuro Mechanisms

When a person experiences trauma, it impacts how their brain functions. Specifically, research shows that individuals with PTSD spend less time engaging in behaviors that seek a reward, have a lower expectation for a positive reward, and are less satisfied when they receive a positive reward. These findings, along with imaging of the brain, indicate that the pleasure-seeking region of the brain is impacted due to trauma. 

This region is also affected by addiction. Through long-term substance use, the brain becomes dependent on drugs and alcohol to feel pleasure. Essentially, the brain is rewired and leads individuals to seek out substances to feel good, and eventually normal. Due to the overlapping regions of the brain, it is believed that the disruption of brain circuitry increases a veteran with PTSD’s risk of addiction. 

Effects of PTSD Treatment on Addiction

The connection between PTSD and addiction is complex. However, they impact each other. Therefore, as a veteran gets treatment for PTSD and their symptoms decrease, their experience with addiction will also change. Through treatment, veterans’ overall mental health, sleep patterns, and behaviors will improve. In turn, these impact their substance use and help them on the road to recovering from addiction. 

Mental Health

PTSD significantly impacts a person’s mental health. Symptoms like agitation, loss of interest, and anxiety are common for veterans with PTSD. These symptoms, combined with flashbacks and severe hypervigilance, make it very hard to function. As understood through the self-medication theory, veterans commonly reach for drugs and alcohol to manage them daily.

However, veterans can improve their overall mental health through treatment. While it will look different for each individual, improved mental health makes a big difference in how a person feels daily. Decreased anxiety, improved interest in activities, and less irritation make it easier to join in regular activities. This helps to decrease using substances as a way to self-medicate and makes it easier for individuals to participate in healthy activities that help them to stay sober. 


Many veterans with PTSD struggle with insomnia or nightmares related to their trauma. As a result, their quality of sleep is diminished. The amount and quality of sleep that a person gets influence how they feel both physically and mentally. When the brain and body are depleted from a lack of sleep, it is more challenging to try new things, learn new behaviors, and make clear decisions. 

However, part of PTSD treatment is to help regulate sleep cycles and manage nightmares. In doing so, veterans improve their quality and amount of sleep regularly. For those also struggling with addiction, this is incredibly helpful. Better sleep helps give veterans the energy and capacity to make necessary changes that help them stay sober. Therefore, it is significantly more difficult to create a new and sober life without PTSD treatment. 


Addiction is a disease that impacts the choices and behaviors a person makes. However, PTSD can also do this. Individuals with PTSD often have increased self-destructive behaviors. This can include drugs and alcohol use, isolation, and suicidal ideation. However, treatment helps veterans to improve these behaviors. In doing so, they are more capable of staying sober because they are more likely to care for their needs, a vital skill that is taught as part of addiction treatment. 

As veterans’ choices and behaviors change, they are more likely to partake in better self-care practices. This can include a more consistent exercise routine, a better diet, and engaging with loved ones. While these are challenging to do with PTSD symptoms, the treatment allows veterans to partake in these healthy activities. This, in turn, helps to decrease substance use and improve recovery from addiction. 

PTSD and Addiction Treatment in Orange County, CA

Getting treatment for PTSD and addiction is vital for veterans who are struggling. However, knowing where to go and what kind of treatment can be confusing. While PTSD and addiction are treated differently, many treatment centers, including Pacific Sands Recovery Center, offer treatment that helps veterans heal from both. 

The specific treatments used will vary depending on the situation. However, they often include medication, individual therapy, group therapy, and alternative modalities that help veterans heal on every level. At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, treatment is individualized. This means that every veteran who arrives will have a plan created that helps address their unique symptoms. With PTSD and addiction, these symptoms will vary greatly, and this approach provides the best options for veterans to heal. 

Finding addiction and PTSD treatment that is in a good location and effectively helps the veteran is important. Pacific Sands Recovery Center is located in Orange County, CA, which is an ideal place to heal. It is central to the Los Angeles area and provides the opportunity for local veterans to get treatment on the entire spectrum of care. 

Using TRICARE and TriWest

Paying for treatment can be stressful. Fortunately, active military members and veterans often have access to TRICARE or TriWest. TRICARE is a program that is available to active military members and their families, retired military members and their families, National Guard Members, and Members of the Reserves. TriWest is a program that helps veterans get help for both physical and mental challenges. It allows veterans to get help both from the VA and the community. 

TRICARE and TriWest offer care in Orange County, CA. At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, veterans and active military members are treated with care and respect. The staff helps military professionals learn about how to get treatment covered by their TRICARE or TriWest plan. 

Many individuals who struggle with addiction also have PTSD. This is especially true for active duty military, retired military, or veterans. Unfortunately, PTSD and addiction are complex, and treatment is unique for each person. However, PTSD treatment is necessary for individuals to heal from addiction. By improving their sleep and mental health and making healthier choices, individuals are more likely to stay sober. At Pacific Sands Recovery Center, we understand that PTSD and addiction both need treatment for an individual to recover. We work with veterans and active-duty military members to help them heal. To learn more about what programs are available at Pacific Sands Recovery Center in Orange County, CA, call (714) 492-1119 today. 


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