most common co occurring disorders

The Most Common Co-Occurring Disorders

A co-occurring disorder is best characterized as the combination of a substance abuse disorder and a mental disorder. It can often feel difficult to escape a co-occurring disorder, which is why it’s important to seek professional help.

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at the most common co-occurring disorders.

Most Common Co-Occurring Disorders

Addiction is a problem for many people, and it can create so many complications and challenges for the people who suffer from it and the people in their lives that it’s difficult to think of anything else that the sufferer might be dealing with. But as it turns out, it’s not unusual for addictions to co-occur with other types of mental health disorders. And finding the right sort of treatment for both can be the key to returning the sufferer to better health. Take a look at some of the most common co-occurring disorders. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, was once thought a problem that mostly affected soldiers who had experienced war. While vets do experience PTSD, though, it’s not exclusive to them. Many people don’t realize that anyone who has experienced a traumatic event, from a natural disaster to a sexual assault, can develop PTSD. 

The symptoms of PTSD are varied and can present very differently in different people. Some of them include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Distressing memories
  • Emotional or physical reactions to reminders of the trauma
  • Avoidance of anything that reminds the person of the event
  • Avoidance talking about the event
  • Negative thoughts
  • Hopelessness
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty or detachment in relationships
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feeling constantly on guard
  • Being easily frightened or startled
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • Anger, guilt, or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior

For people who have PTSD, substance abuse might be a way to temporarily stop the symptoms. Drugs that put the sufferer to sleep can also dampen dreams, allowing the person to escape from nightmares. Substances may be a way to avoid triggers that bring on PTSD episodes. Drugs might also dull the senses, helping to eliminate nervousness or induce feelings of pleasure, helping those who are suffering from numbness. 


Depression is an incredibly common mental illness. It affects more than 200 million people worldwide. And it’s also a common co-occurring disorder. Some of the signs of depression also overlap with the signs of addiction, so it can be very easy to miss that a person is struggling with both at the same time. Some of the overlapping symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with personal relationships
  • Isolation
  • Refusal to acknowledge the existence of a problem
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and social activities

People who deal with depression sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol to numb difficult emotions that they’re having trouble dealing with, or to experience something that feels pleasurable if they’re unable to feel happiness otherwise. In some cases, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and feelings, and misusing substances can be a method of self-destructiveness or self-harm, and can also be a method used in a suicide attempt.


Anxiety is also an incredibly prevalent mental health disorder. It can be hard for people who don’t have it to understand, but it’s much more than occasional worrying. People suffering from anxiety can feel as if something terrible is always about to happen – to themselves, to someone they love, to the world in general – and that the weight of the world is crashing down on top of them. 

Some people experience more generalized anxiety, while others experience anxiety in specific situations, such as social situations like parties. In either case, they may turn to substances in order to lessen the stress and feelings of pressure that accompany the disorder. It doesn’t help that, at least in some cases, it’s generally accepted to use substances to ease anxiety, even if it’s not healthy. For instance, alcohol is often called a “social lubricant” and people who are anxious in social situations may be encouraged to imbibe in order to facilitate positive interactions with others and overcome their inhibitions. 

Depending on the person, place, and cultural context, substances besides alcohol may be recommended or even pushed on people who have anxiety, and it can also seem to work in the moment, so it’s no wonder that people experiencing anxiety may develop a dependency on certain substances. 

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is talked about often, but not easily understood by many people. Depending on your age, you may remember hearing it called manic depression. The name comes from the fact that this condition is characterized by mood swings that can cause the sufferer to alternate between low energy and depression and high energy and mania

Mood swings can be distressing to live with, and in many cases, people with bipolar disorder begin using substances to self-medicate and cope with the difficulty of their symptoms. People in a depressive episode might want to feel pleasure or numb pain, while people in a manic episode might want to bring themselves back down, or they might feel reckless or self-destructive and use drugs for those reasons. For people who have bipolar disorder, using or misusing substances can trigger a manic or depressive episode, which means that an alcohol or drug addiction that co-occurs with bipolar disorder can make the sufferer’s condition even less easy to manage and more complicated to live with. 

Treating Co-occurring Disorders

Treating addiction problems that co-occur with other types of mental health disorders requires treatment that takes both problems into account. There are several treatment options that can be helpful. Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is one important component of treatment. Another is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which is meant to address both the environmental and emotional aspects involved in the mental health symptoms and substance abuse behavior and teach coping skills. 

Mental health professionals may also employ dialectal behavior therapy (DBT), which is meant to help patients strike a balance between change and self-acceptance. Other forms of care may include exposure therapy, group therapy, family counseling, and other different approaches. There’s not necessarily one right way to treat co-occurring disorders, it depends on the specific combination of disorders, the individual’s needs, and the type of treatment they best respond to. The most important thing is that the person experiencing co-occurring disorders gets the appropriate mental health care and support that they need in order to recover. 

The Heights can be a helpful resource for people looking for mental health treatment for themselves or the people they care about. Contact them to find out more.