Triumph Over Trauma: Veterans’ Journey to Recovery from Self-Medication and Addiction

Last Updated: February 9, 2024

The journey to recovery for veterans grappling with trauma and self-medication is a testament to their resilience and hope. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 7% of military veterans will face post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their lifetime. Exposure to combat, traumatic events and life-threatening situations can make veterans more susceptible to trauma-related behavioral and mental health concerns than the general population.

Sadly, there’s a strong link between trauma and self-medication. Studies reveal that nearly 50% of individuals diagnosed with PTSD also struggle with a concurrent substance use disorder. Many experts believe this connection arises from the inclination to self-medicate, using substances to find a temporary escape from the haunting memories and emotions associated with traumatic events.

However, as the effectiveness of substances diminishes, self-medication can morph into a full-blown substance use disorder. When left unaddressed, the co-occurring conditions of trauma and substance use exacerbate both the mental and behavioral health struggles of the individual.

To offer comprehensive care, clinicians often embark on a dual mission to address both trauma and substance use. Treatment programs may incorporate veteran support groups to further personalize the treatment plan. Fortunately, there are evidence-based treatments spanning various modalities that provide invaluable support to self-medicating veterans on their journey to recovery.

Navigating the Complex Terrain of Trauma and Self-Medication

Veterans grappling with trauma often endure an array of symptoms. As per the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD symptoms can include:

  • Intrusive thoughts, including distressing dreams and vivid flashbacks
  • Avoidance of people, places or situations that may trigger distressing memories, events or emotions
  • Distorted thoughts concerning the traumatic event or an inability to remember it accurately
  • Mood swings or outbursts of anger

To cope with these symptoms, veterans may turn to drugs and alcohol. Initially, substances may offer respite by aiding sleep, providing comfort in stressful situations or serving as a distraction from issues stemming from PTSD, such as strained relationships or professional setbacks. However, self-medication merely perpetuates the cycle of avoidance.

While self-medication may appear to provide momentary relief, PTSD symptoms generally worsen over time. This deterioration disrupts sleep, alters mood and diminishes the effectiveness of prescribed psychiatric medications. Evidence underscores the most effective approach, which entails addressing both PTSD and substance use disorder concurrently.

Veterans’ Journey to Recovery from Trauma and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders

Veterans embarking on the path to recovery often engage in a comprehensive continuum of care tailored to their specific needs. Assessments for substance use and psychiatric concerns help determine the most suitable level of care. In cases where veterans require structured and supervised recovery, clinicians may recommend residential or inpatient facilities.

If deemed medically necessary, individuals may undergo supervised detox to safely withdraw from substances. Many detox facilities incorporate medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to ensure a safe and comfortable experience. These acute care levels aim to stabilize individuals and prepare them for transitions into less intensive care.

While the specifics of each care plan depend on the veteran’s needs, residential treatment may be followed by a partial hospitalization program (PHP), an intensive outpatient program (IOP), regular outpatient programs and aftercare services. For veterans, these aftercare services may encompass vocational training, ongoing medication management to address psychiatric symptoms and participation in veteran support groups.

Hope and Healing: Evidence-Based Strategies for Self-Medicating Veterans

Throughout different stages of care, clinicians deploy a spectrum of treatments to address both substance use and trauma-related challenges.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been identified as a highly effective tool for treating co-occurring trauma-related disorders. During CBT sessions, clinicians delve into maladaptive thinking patterns that may contribute to veterans’ self-medication. These trauma-focused psychotherapy sessions also aid veterans in processing traumatic events and the associated emotions.

Exposure Therapy

Prolonged exposure therapy endeavors to help veterans overcome the emotional “triggers” linked to trauma. These sessions may involve repeated exposure to detailed images or virtual reality programs designed to evoke fear, distress and other negative emotions. The aim is to create a controlled, secure environment for veterans to systematically confront their emotional reactions.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

EMDR, a trauma-focused psychotherapy, involves inducing eye movement in veterans while discussing traumatic events. Thought to simulate REM sleep, EMDR often proves effective in altering veterans’ memories of traumatic events, thereby reducing their emotional connection to these memories.

Family-Centric Counseling

Family counseling sessions include loved ones in the treatment process. This approach helps loved ones understand the symptoms of trauma and substance use disorders while involving them in aftercare planning. Research suggests that family involvement in treatment can enhance treatment outcomes among veterans.

Medication Management and Post-Treatment Support

In addition to counseling and psychoeducation, veterans may continue to receive medication to address symptoms associated with PTSD and substance use. Post-treatment plans typically encompass ongoing medication management and follow-up appointments with prescribing clinicians.

Alternative Therapeutic Approaches

Treatment for veterans may also include individual counseling and group therapy with other veterans or individuals who have experienced similar traumatic events. One intervention tailored specifically for those with PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorders is Seeking Safety therapy. This evidence-based approach aims to reduce trauma and substance abuse symptoms while enhancing coping skills related to behavior, thinking and emotions.

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