PTSD and Addiction

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a severe and debilitating condition that impacts an estimated two million people across the United Kingdom. PTSD results from traumatic experiences that leave a lasting imprint and cause long-term suffering, physical and mental health issues and a struggle to get through everyday life. Despite the daunting nature of PTSD, it is crucial to recognise that it is not an insurmountable challenge. With the advancement in understanding and treating this condition, professional PTSD treatment can provide much-needed relief and the chance for long-term recovery.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a complex psychiatric condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing life-threatening or severely traumatic events. It is characterised by intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic experiences that persist long after the event has concluded. Individuals who have PTSD may relive the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares alongside persistent feelings of sadness, fear, anger and a detachment or estrangement from other people.

PTSD has been known under different names like “shell shock” and “combat fatigue” after the First and Second World Wars, respectively, reflecting its initial association with war veterans. However, it is now understood that PTSD can affect anyone who has been through a significant trauma. It is categorised under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a serious and valid medical condition which has been instrumental in advancing both the understanding and treatment of PTSD.

What are the 17 symptoms of PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder manifests through a variety of symptoms that can significantly impact a person’s ability to function and their overall quality of life. The DSM-5 categories these symptoms of PTSD into four primary clusters: intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood and alterations in arousal and reactivity. Within these categories are 17 often-cited symptoms which present in different combinations from person to person:

Intrusion symptoms of PTSD


  1. Intrusive thoughts: Unwanted, distressing memories of the traumatic event.


  1. Nightmares: Recurrent, distressing dreams related to the trauma.


  1. Flashbacks: Vivid, involuntary memories where the event feels like it’s happening again.


  1. Emotional distress: Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolise or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.


  1. Physical reactivity: Marked physiological reactions to reminders of the traumatic event.

Avoidance symptoms of PTSD


  1. Efforts to avoid memories: Deliberate attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings or conversations about the traumatic event.


  1. Avoidance of reminders: Efforts to avoid people, places, activities, objects and situations that may trigger distressing memories.

Negative alterations in cognition and mood


  1. Negative beliefs: Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about themselves, others or the world.


  1. Distorted blame: Persistent, distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event that lead the individual to blame themselves or others.


  1. Detachment: Feelings of depression, detachment or estrangement from others.


  1. Decreased interest: Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities.


  1. Inability to experience positive emotions: Persistent inability to experience happiness, satisfaction or loving feelings.

Alterations in arousal and reactivity


  1. Irritability or aggressiveness: Irritable behaviour and angry outbursts, typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects.


  1. Reckless behaviour: Engaging in reckless or self-destructive activities.


  1. Hypervigilance: Exaggerated startle response and constant alertness for danger.


  1. Concentration problems: Difficulty concentrating in important situations. 


  1. Sleep disturbances: Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and other forms of nighttime restlessness.

Organising the symptoms into these categories helps in understanding the multifaceted nature of PTSD and provides a framework for diagnosis and treatment planning. It also underscores the impact of PTSD across various aspects of a person’s life, from their mental health to how they see the world around them. 

What are the causes of PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as its name suggests, arises from exposure to traumatic events that are overwhelmingly stressful and outside the range of usual human experiences. These encompass a wide range of experiences, with some people more predisposed to the development of PTSD than others. Some of the most common causes of PTSD include:

Direct exposure to trauma
  • Combat and war: Military personnel and people who have experienced war can develop PTSD due to the intense stress and life-threatening situations they have faced.
  • Physical assault: Victims of physical attacks, including assault, mugging and kidnapping, can develop PTSD from the direct threat to their safety.
  • Sexual violence: Sexual assault and abuse are potent triggers for PTSD, affecting many individuals who experience or witness these crimes.
  • Natural disasters: Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other catastrophic natural events often lead to PTSD among survivors.
  • Serious accidents: Traumatic events such as car crashes, industrial accidents or severe falls can also result in PTSD.
Witnessing trauma
Witnessing acts of violence, serious accidents or the aftermath of disasters can be traumatic enough to cause PTSD, even if the observer is not directly harmed.

Learning about trauma to close ones
Learning that a close relative or friend was a victim of violence or a tragic accident can trigger PTSD in some individuals.
Professional exposure to trauma
First responders, such as police, firefighters, paramedics and journalists covering war zones or disasters, may develop PTSD from repeated exposure to traumatic scenes.
Historical, cultural or systemic trauma
Experiences of racial discrimination, refugee and displacement crises and historical traumas affecting communities can also be sources of PTSD.
Psychological and biological factors

  • Pre-existing mental health conditions: Individuals with a history of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression may be more susceptible to developing PTSD following a traumatic event.


  • Genetic predisposition: There is evidence to suggest that genetics may also play a role in an individual’s vulnerability to PTSD.


  • Personality traits: Certain personality traits, such as resilience, can influence how an individual processes and recovers from trauma, potentially affecting the likelihood of PTSD development.

In addition to these causes, factors such as the intensity and duration of the trauma, personal resilience and available support systems play crucial roles in the development and severity of PTSD symptoms. Understanding these causes is crucial for developing effective prevention strategies and treatment approaches that address the specific needs of those affected by PTSD.

What are the long-term effects of PTSD?

The long-term effects of PTSD can be both wide-reaching and life-affecting. Without proper treatment, PTSD can lead to persistent and sometimes worsening symptoms over time, with long-term consequences including:

Mental health complications

  • Persistent anxiety and depression: Individuals with PTSD may experience ongoing symptoms of anxiety and depression, which can become chronic conditions.
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviours: The intense emotional pain and hopelessness associated with PTSD can increase the risk of suicidal ideation and attempts.
  • Memory and concentration problems: PTSD can impair cognitive functions, leading to difficulties with memory, attention and decision-making.
  • Emotional numbness: A long-term coping mechanism for some individuals with PTSD involves detaching from their emotions, leading to a sense of emptiness or disconnection from life.

Physical health issues

  • Increased risk for cardiovascular disease: The chronic stress associated with PTSD can contribute to an elevated risk of heart disease, hypertension and stroke.
  • Chronic pain: Conditions such as headaches, back pain and other musculoskeletal problems are more common in individuals with PTSD.
  • Sleep disturbances: Long-term sleep problems, including insomnia and nightmares, can exacerbate other PTSD symptoms and contribute to general health decline.
  • Addiction: PTSD significantly increases the risk of developing substance use disorders, including alcohol and drug abuse. Individuals may turn to substances as a way to self-medicate, attempting to alleviate the distressing symptoms of PTSD. However, substance abuse can exacerbate PTSD symptoms over time, creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.

Social and relational impact

  • Relationship difficulties: The emotional and psychological effects of PTSD can strain relationships with family, friends and partners, leading to conflicts, isolation and loneliness.
  • Employment challenges: PTSD symptoms can hinder job performance and stability, resulting in difficulties maintaining employment and financial stress.

These long-term effects of PTSD highlight the critical need for effective, timely interventions.

What does PTSD treatment involve?

Treatment for PTSD is multifaceted, aiming to alleviate symptoms, improve overall ability to function and address any co-occurring conditions. Effective PTSD treatment can empower individuals to manage their symptoms, regain a sense of control over their lives and make significant steps towards recovery. The treatment plan for PTSD typically involves:


  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT is a widely used and effective treatment for PTSD that focuses on changing patterns of thinking, behaviour and emotional responses associated with traumatic memories. It includes techniques such as cognitive processing therapy, which helps individuals reframe negative thoughts about the trauma, and prolonged exposure therapy, which involves gradually exposing individuals to trauma reminders to lessen their power.


  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR involves guiding the individual to recall distressing images while receiving one of several types of bilateral sensory input, typically side-to-side eye movements. It is based on the premise that this bilateral stimulation can help reduce the emotional distress associated with traumatic memories and help the brain’s natural healing process.


  • Group therapy: Group therapy provides a supportive environment where individuals can share their experiences and coping strategies with others who have similar backgrounds and challenges. It helps reduce feelings of isolation and can be particularly beneficial for veterans or survivors of specific types of trauma.

  • Antidepressants: SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) are the most commonly prescribed medications for PTSD. They can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, which often co-occur with PTSD.


  • Other medications: Depending on the individual’s symptoms and co-occurring conditions, other types of medications may be prescribed, such as anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilisers or antipsychotics.
Lifestyle modifications and supportive therapies

  • Mindfulness and stress reduction techniques: Practices such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can help manage stress and anxiety symptoms associated with PTSD.


  • Physical activity: Regular exercise can improve mood, reduce anxiety and enhance overall well-being.


  • Support from family and friends: Social support is crucial for recovery, providing emotional comfort and practical assistance.


  • Education: Educating individuals and their loved ones about PTSD can help demystify the condition and promote understanding and support.

PTSD treatment plans should be tailored to the individual’s needs, preferences and specific symptoms, with regular evaluation and adjustment if necessary. Collaboration between the individual, their family and healthcare providers is key to successful PTSD treatment, but with comprehensive care, many people can achieve significant improvements in their symptoms and overall quality of life.

Get help for PTSD today

If you or someone you know is struggling with symptoms of PTSD, it is crucial to seek professional help. PTSD is a complex condition, but it is also one that can be managed with the right support and treatment. Taking the first step towards seeking help can be challenging, but it is an essential part of the journey toward recovery and regaining control of your life. Reach out to your GP, a private mental health clinic or an addiction rehab centre if you are struggling with addiction and PTSD. These professionals can assess your situation and help you plan a recovery path.

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How is PTSD diagnosed?
PTSD is diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, who uses the criteria outlined in DSM-5. The diagnosis process involves detailed interviews and an assessment of symptoms and their impacts. The individual must exhibit symptoms of PTSD from specific categories (intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood and alterations in arousal and reactivity) for at least one month and demonstrate significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of life.

What is Complex PTSD?
Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD, is a condition that results from prolonged or repeated exposure to traumatic events, often over months or years rather than a single incident. This type of PTSD is common among individuals who have experienced chronic abuse, captivity, torture, long-term domestic violence, or repeated childhood neglect or abuse. Treatment for C-PTSD typically requires a more multifaceted and long-term approach, focusing on safety, stabilisation, processing of traumatic memories and rebuilding of a positive self-identity.