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Substance Abuse and Emotional Disorders Part II

In Substance Abuse and Emotional Disorders Part I, we discussed several conditions that often co-occur with substance abuse, addiction and alcoholism. This included emotional disorders like depression, mania and bipolar disorder. In this installment of the series we’ll detail several other disorders and how they are related to drug addiction and/or alcoholism. This topic is a critical one in the field of addiction because often emotional disorders can be the cause of drug use or alcoholism, or these conditions can be exacerbated by substance abuse and addiction. In fact, some in the industry feel that either can easily precipitate the other, making the understanding of this issue a fundamental component necessary to effectively treat both conditions simultaneously in order to achieve the best chance for success.

PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

One of the most well-known but least understood emotional disorders is PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is not an organic disorder in the sense that it generally doesn’t occur on its own – PTSD requires a significant traumatic event in order to occur in most people. For instance, many of the Vietnam veterans who came back from the war in the 1960’s and 1970’s suffered from PTSD – then a poorly understood condition. In order to self-medicate their condition, many of these soldiers turned to drugs and alcohol – and some of them died of alcoholism and addiction as a result.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as:

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you’ve seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death. PTSD can occur at any age. It can follow a natural disaster such as a flood or fire, or events such as: assault, domestic abuse, a prison stay, rape, terrorism or war. For example, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 may have caused PTSD in some people who were involved, in people who saw the disaster, and in people who lost relatives and friends.” (1)

When a traumatic event occurs, it alters the way a person responds to stressful situations. This occurs in two primary ways:

  1. The person relives or re-experiences the event repeatedly in their mind. At times, these experiences can be just as real (to the sufferer) as the actual event. Sometimes people suffering from PTSD will act out while having a “flashback,” and may actually do harm to themselves or others in the process. Someone suffering from PTSD may have consistent nightmares and memories of the traumatic event or other, imaginary events like it.
  2. People with PTSD often over-react to stressful situations. They may become fearful, hide or become isolated, or they may react with bizarre and seemingly unexplained behaviors toward stimulus or stress that un-afflicted individuals would be easily able to manage. In some cases these individuals can become angry, full of rage and may even become violent as a result of self-preservation triggers that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder activates.

Most of the most significant problems with people who suffer from PTSD is that they often turn to drugs and/or alcohol in order to treat their own symptoms. This can significantly exacerbate efforts to the PTSD or any other emotional disorder, as treatment of these conditions is dependent upon a drug and alcohol-free state of mind and body. In most cases drug rehab centers will seek to arrest and treat the substance abuse or alcoholism first, and then address any emotional disorders as a regular part of drug addiction treatment.


Anxiety disorders consist of such conditions as Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (covered above as a stand-alone emotional disorder, but widely considered a condition that falls under the anxiety umbrella), Social Anxiety Disorder, and a large number of specific phobias.

In the Wikipedia entry for Anxiety Disorders, the condition is described as follows:

“The term anxiety covers four aspects of experiences an individual may have: mental apprehension, physical tension, physical symptoms and dissociative anxiety. Anxiety disorder is divided into generalized anxiety disorder, phobic disorder, and panic disorder; each has its own characteristics and symptoms and they require different treatment (Gelder et al. 2005). The emotions present in anxiety disorders range from simple nervousness to bouts of terror (Barker 2003). Standardized screening clinical questionnaires such as Zung Self-Rating Anxiety Scale can be used to detect anxiety symptoms, and suggest the need for a formal diagnostic assessment of anxiety disorder.” (2)

As a result of their conditions, many people with anxiety issues seek relief in the form of drugs like marijuana, Valium, Xanax, alcohol and other “downers” that can help them relax and face everyday situations. However, this often leads to tolerance and physical dependence, which untreated almost always results in addiction or alcoholism. Once these more serious conditions have set in, the treatment priority is nearly always to address the substance abuse or alcoholism, and then address any underlying or co-occurring emotional issues during the drug addiction treatment process.

But while many people might feel that they have found solace in drugs, the fact of the matter is that many drugs only serve to exacerbate existing emotional disorders. For instance, it is widely believed that over time, anxiety issues are often made worse by smoking marijuana, which can cause feelings of paranoia and persecution – two major problems for people who suffer from anxiety.

If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction and/or alcoholism and a co-occurring condition, you should know that it is possible to successfully treat both and begin to live a healthy, normal life once again. Take action right now by calling the number at the top of your screen regardless of what time it is or where you are located. We can help, but we can’t do anything if you don’t call.

(2) Wikipedia Anxiety Disorders

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More