The vast majority of people with addiction have suffered significant previous trauma, and many people who struggle with addiction suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) simultaneously. But the treatment of these patients has posed a conundrum: experts have believed that PTSD treatment should not begin until the addicted person achieves lasting abstinence, because of the risk that PTSD treatment may trigger relapse, yet addicted people with untreated PTSD are rarely able to abstain for long.
Now, a new study suggests that there may be no need to wait. Researchers found that using exposure therapy — the gold-standard treatment for PTSD, which involves exposure to memories and reminders of patients’ past trauma — can successfully reduce symptoms of PTSD, even when people with addiction continue to use drugs. And, although exposure therapy requires patients to face some of their worst fears, it does not increase their drug use or prompt them to drop out of treatment more than ordinary addiction therapy, the study found.
“The exciting thing in my view is that [the study] supports people with drug and alcohol problems having access to other forms of psychological interventions, rather than being fobbed off and told to sort out their alcohol or drug problem first,” says Michael Farrell, director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Center at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, where the research was conducted.
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The finding could potentially help the majority of those who suffer from addiction or PTSD: one-half to two-thirds of people with addictions suffer from PTSD concurrently, or have in the past, and about the same proportion of people with PTSD also have substance use disorders.
The new study involved 103 people with both conditions. Most were addicted to multiple drugs, primarily heroin, marijuana and alcohol. More than two-thirds of the participants had been traumatized during childhood, with almost half reporting a history of sexual abuse.
Researchers randomly assigned half of the participants to simply continue the addiction treatment of their choice, whether it was detoxification leading to abstinence, residential treatment or maintenance on medications like methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex).
The other half received their usual treatment, plus exposure therapy for PTSD, which consisted of 13 one-on-one sessions with a clinical psychologist, meeting about once a week for 90 minutes at a time. The therapy began with education about PTSD and addiction, including instruction on cognitive techniques to address distressing thoughts that could lead to relapse. Then, when patients were ready, they were exposed to reminders of their traumatic experience, which they usually avoided out of fear of triggering flashbacks and intense anxiety. Exposure therapy works to reduce or eliminate these PTSD symptoms by breaking patients’ cycle of fear and avoidance.
Indeed, participants in the exposure treatment “demonstrated significantly greater reductions in PTSD symptom severity compared with participants randomized to receive usual treatment alone,” the authors wrote. However, drug use in the exposure therapy group didn’t decline any more than it did in the usual treatment group. Both groups saw a reduction in the severity of addiction but in each case, the majority of participants continued to use drugs. Notably, however, drug use did not increase due to exposure therapy.
“These findings challenge the widely held view that patients need to be abstinent before any trauma work, let alone prolonged exposure therapy, is commenced,” the authors wrote. “[F]indings from the present study demonstrate that abstinence is not required.”
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Importantly, however, while the findings showed that carefully delivered exposure therapy can help, they did not support the practice of forcing addicts to confront trauma in settings where they do not feel safe or in control. Exposure therapy is calibrated so that patients do not become overwhelmed or feel helpless; in contrast, coercion by the therapist can re-traumatize patients and worsen both PTSD and addiction symptoms, previous studies have shown.
In other words, it’s not clear that treating people with addiction by compelling them to recall or re-enact traumatic experiences — a commonly used tactic in group settings — actually helps. What the current study shows is that when trained clinical psychologists carefully deliver exposure therapy in a tightly monitored trial, they can help ease PTSD symptoms in people with addiction.
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.