While serving in the military, many individuals endure a lot of high-stress or traumatic situations, such as deployment and combat exposure. Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events can result in mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Learn more about the link between PTSD and veteran substance abuse and how treatment can help.

Veteran smiling during drug and alcohol addiction treatment

Prevalence of PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders are very common in military veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 2 in 10 veterans diagnosed with PTSD have a co-occurring substance use disorder, while 1 in 3 veterans seeking PTSD treatment also receive treatment for alcohol or drug abuse.

Understanding PTSD in Veterans

Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD symptoms can start within a month after the event or, in some cases, not until years later. They can cause significant problems in interpersonal relationships, social situations, or work, making it difficult to navigate daily life.

Common PTSD warning signs for veterans may include:

  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares
  • Reliving the event
  • Avoiding situations that remind them of the event, such as noisy or crowded places
  • Difficulty establishing trust
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed or remorseful
  • Lacking interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Feeling constantly alert and uneasy in unfamiliar situations
  • Watching out for dangerous people or objects in everyday situations
  • Difficulty sleeping or relaxing
  • Acting recklessly, such as using alcohol or illicit drugs

Symptoms may begin right after an individual returns home from war or later in life when a distressing situation reminds them of what they experienced. Several factors or situations can trigger PTSD in veterans, such as:

  • Loud noises reminiscent of explosives or gunshots
  • Seeing someone in a military uniform or media coverage of a war
  • Witnessing another traumatic event when already diagnosed with PTSD
  • Visiting places with large crowds and loud noises, such as restaurants or concerts
  • Having a nightmare or flashback of battle or war

These symptoms and triggers can negatively affect an individual’s life in several ways. They may shy away from social events if they’re worried about being around too many people or noises. Veterans may also impose other life-altering restrictions, such as limiting when they leave the house and avoiding certain places.

The Connection Between PTSD and Substance Abuse

According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there’s a strong link between PTSD and substance abuse, especially for those who’ve experienced war, disasters or criminal attacks. Substances are often used to alleviate mental health problems, although they can cause drug and alcohol dependence that creates more problems.

Self-Medication Theory

Some veterans may turn to substances to self-medicate symptoms of mental disorders. Many people with a PTSD diagnosis struggle with bad memories, emotional pain, poor sleep, anxiety or guilt. They may also experience feelings of dissociation or intrusive thoughts and images. Drugs or alcohol are often used to provide a temporary distraction or relief from these symptoms, although this habit can be extremely harmful.

Alcohol and drug abuse reduces an individual’s ability to concentrate, sleep restfully, be productive at work and learn how to cope with trauma and stress in a healthy manner. It can also increase emotional numbing, depression, irritability and social isolation, causing further mental health issues, such as mood or anxiety disorders.

The Role of Stress in Substance Abuse

Stress is another risk factor in developing a substance use disorder. Although stress is a natural reaction to many life experiences, chronic stress can cause several mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, irritability and insomnia. During stressful situations, your body’s fight-or-flight response is triggered, resulting in tensed muscles, rapid breathing and increased heart rate.

Chronic stress also affects many brain functions, including dopamine and serotonin production. Dopamine is a chemical associated with pleasure and reward, while serotonin helps with mood regulation. Many substances have stimulating effects that increase dopamine and serotonin levels, reducing stress and boosting your overall mood. This may explain why many people with mental health disorders who experience constant stress or anxiety turn to substances.

Commonly Abused Substances by Veterans With PTSD

Veteran alcoholism is one of the most common substance abuse issues, and about 80% of Vietnam veterans seeking PTSD treatment also struggle with alcohol use disorders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is one of the most commonly used illicit drugs among veterans. Opioids, including heroin and prescription drugs, are also popular for active duty service members and veterans to alleviate chronic pain.

Identifying the Signs of Substance Abuse in Veterans

There are various signs a veteran may be struggling with addiction, depending on the substance used, their lifestyle and mental or physical health. Substance use disorders may happen suddenly or gradually over time. However, there are a few common behavioral, physical and emotional signs that may indicate a veteran is abusing drugs or alcohol:

  • Inability to stop: An individual may be unable to control their substance use. They may struggle to quit, even if they want to, due to intense urges or cravings. This can result in attempting to limit how much they consume, such as having only one drink with dinner, although they may rarely stick with that goal.
  • Reckless life choices: People with drug and alcohol dependence are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking and driving, stealing or having unprotected sex.
  • Relationship changes: Substance use can make it difficult for individuals to maintain interpersonal relationships, even with close friends or family members. They may become withdrawn and prefer to be alone.
  • Inability to maintain responsibilities: Veterans with an addiction may struggle to maintain a job or meet social obligations. They also may avoid social situations, such as a family event, to hide their substance use.
  • Obsession with obtaining the substance: Veteran drug addiction can result in spending excessive time trying to obtain a drug. For example, they may doctor shop to get new prescriptions and stockpile drugs to prevent running out. This can lead to taking higher doses and building a stronger tolerance.
  • Emotional instability: Drug abuse can cause various mental or emotional issues, including mood swings, anxiety, depression, irritability and anger. An individual may also experience memory lapses or blackouts, depending on the substance taken and how much they’re consuming.
  • Changes in physical appearance: Because your loved one may be so focused on their habit, they may pay less attention to maintaining personal hygiene, such as bathing, brushing teeth and changing clothes. Other physical symptoms can include loss of appetite, decreased energy and unexplained injuries from falls or accidents while under the influence.

veteran in risk for developing PTSD and substance abuse

Risk Factors for Developing PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Some military personnel are more likely to develop PTSD and substance abuse than others. This largely depends on a person’s medical history, military experiences, and lifestyle after coming home. Here are a few examples of what these risk factors can be.

Preexisting Mental Health Disorders

People with preexisting mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, are at an increased risk of developing PTSD or using substances to cope with symptoms. Since these disorders can be genetic, a family history of mental health issues is also a risk factor.

Combat Exposure

During combat, service members are at risk of death or injury and exposed to many traumatic events, such as witnessing others being injured or being forced to injure or kill others to protect themselves. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, combat exposure can increase a person’s chances of having PTSD and other mental health problems.

Military Sexual Trauma

Military sexual trauma (MST) refers to experiencing sexual assault or harassment during military service. MST can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health, even several years after the traumatic event. Examples include sexual coercion, physical force, unwanted touching, and threatening comments about someone’s body.

Individuals may experience PTSD symptoms, including disturbing nightmares, anger, sleep issues, depression or numbness, decreased self-esteem and difficulty feeling safe. These negative feelings can prompt some veterans to use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

Social and Environmental Factors

Living in an unsafe or unsupportive environment can also increase an individual’s risk of developing PTSD and a substance use disorder. Being around a lot of noise or being exposed to other traumatic events after leaving the military may trigger PTSD symptoms, which can lead to substance use to alleviate them.

The Department of Veterans Affairs reports approximately 40,000 veterans experience homelessness. Homeless veterans are also at an increased risk of having mental health issues. Not having stable housing or income can cause chronic stress and other mental health issues due to a lack of safety and mental health care.

Treatment Options for Veterans With PTSD and Substance Abuse

There are several PTSD and substance abuse treatment options available to help veterans overcome their struggles and lead more fulfilling lives. Some of these treatment options include:

Trauma-Informed Care

A trauma-informed approach to mental health treatment aims to help individuals recognize and understand how trauma affects their thoughts and behaviors. It creates a safe, compassionate and empowering environment for veterans to process what happened to them so they can move forward, lead stable lives and build healthier, happier relationships with their loved ones.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

A form of goal-oriented talk therapy, CBT focuses on helping people understand how their thoughts impact their behavior by attempting to identify and alter negative thought patterns. Once these patterns have been identified, individuals can learn healthier ways to cope with their emotions rather than turning to drugs or alcohol.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

MAT combines medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to help individuals overcome substance use disorders. Attending therapy sessions simultaneously addresses the psychological aspects of addiction, ensuring individuals receive well-rounded treatment. Certain medications can help relieve cravings and withdrawal symptoms depending on the drug to make the process more bearable and prevent relapse.

Individual and Group Therapy

In most PTSD treatment programs, clients have access to several types of therapy, including individual and group therapy. Individual therapy involves one-on-one meetings with an assigned therapist to process substance abuse or mental health issues and learn healthier coping skills. Group therapy provides a small group setting for people to discuss their problems and gain emotional support from others who share similar experiences.

Alternative Therapies

In addition to traditional, evidence-based therapies, alternative therapies can also help treat PTSD and substance abuse. Alternative therapies refer to any medical treatment outside traditional medicine techniques and can include:

  • Yoga, tai chi and body movement therapies
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Nutrition and diet
  • Art, dance and music therapy

Many of these therapies have been effective in increasing overall well-being by aiding in relaxation and reducing feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.

How to Encourage the Veteran in Your Life to Seek Help

How to Encourage the Veteran in Your Life to Seek Help

If you have a veteran in your life struggling with PTSD or substance abuse, expressing your concern or support is one of the first steps you can take. It’s important to help them feel safe around you and to prove you’re looking out for their best interests. Avoid using threatening language, such as demanding they seek help or blaming them for their problems. This may make them more likely to seek a veteran rehab program.

The Behavioral Health Difference for Treating PTSD and Addiction in Veterans

Behavioral Health Centers in Florida is equipped to help veterans throughout the entire PTSD and addiction treatment process, from detox to aftercare planning. We provide several services to help you process your trauma and move forward with the rest of your life. Contact us today by calling 772-774-3872 to speak with a trusted admissions counselor and learn how our services can benefit you.

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