The Relationship between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Abuse

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is an increased risk that you will self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol. Statistics suggest that between 20 and 50 percent of people diagnosed with PTSD abuse drugs and/or alcohol. If you suffer from PTSD, you may experience disturbing symptoms such as: night terrors, delusions, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, racing heart, high blood pressure, muscle tension, sweating, hallucination, inattention, irritability and intense emotional distress related to the event that originally caused the PTSD), which can cause you to use, misuse or abuse drugs and/or alcohol.

At first, the drugs and/or alcohol may ease your pain and help you temporarily forget the traumatic incident that caused your PTSD, but over time the substance use may turn into abuse, which ultimately may turn into addiction. In other words, the drugs and/or alcohol abuse can, in the long-run, lead to a full-blown addiction. In addition, you may develop a substance abuse problem if you were physically injured during the post-traumatic event and prescribed powerful narcotics to relieve the pain. Your pain may be long-lasting and deep, which may cause you to increase your dosage of the prescribed narcotic or combine your prescription medication with illegal substances and/or alcohol.

Treatment for PTSD and Substance Abuse

If you are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and/or alcohol abuse, it is paramount that you seek treatment as soon as possible. There are a variety of treatments available to help you recover from PTSD and drug and/or alcohol abuse. Each condition (PTSD and substance abuse) will need to be treated separately at either an outpatient or residential treatment center. Your treatment plan may consist of a variety of medications, psychotherapies, and alternative treatments.

The following treatment approaches may be used to help you recover from PTSD and drug and/or alcohol abuse:


Psychotherapy aids in the treatment of PTSD and substance abuse by helping you understand your past, the traumatic incident you experienced, your PTSD triggers and the relationship between PTSD and your abuse of drugs. Your therapist can help you come to terms with what happened to you and teach you more positive ways to manage PTSD.

It is important that your mental health professional (psychologist, therapist, counselor or mental health social worker) be trained in the area of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse so that he/she can successfully help you work through your concerns so that you no longer feel the need to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Research suggests that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is beneficial for people who struggle with PTSD and substance abuse. The purpose of DBT is to help you improve your emotional health and reduce your impulsive behaviors. Your DBT therapist teaches how to effectively cope with your PTSD symptoms.

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has shown some success in the treatment of PTSD and substance abuse. The purpose of EMDR is to help you release your blocked memories and release your destructive emotions. Your EMDR therapist uses your senses (auditory, visual and tactile) to help you visualize the PTSD memories and emotions in a healthier, more productive way so that you do not feel the need to turn to drugs and/or alcohol.

Somatic Experiencing

Another treatment commonly used to treat PTSD and substance abuse is somatic experiencing. This approach alleviates PTSD symptoms by helping you understand the relationship between your traumatic experience and the way your body processes the memories and emotions associated with that event. The purpose of somatic experiencing is to reduce PTSD symptoms and substance abuse by helping you understand why you feel and behave the way that you do.

Prolonged-Exposure Therapy

Prolonged-exposure therapy has shown success when treating people with PTSD and drug and/or alcohol addictions. This therapeutic approach teaches you how to distance yourself from things that trigger your traumatic memories and emotions. During a prolonged-exposure therapy session, you are expected to recall (in detail) the memories and emotions that triggered your PTSD. Due to the fact that you are expected to recall the incident in detail, the process typically takes several sessions to complete. The purpose of prolonged-exposure therapy is to ease your PTSD symptoms by desensitizing you to the memories and emotions associated with the event so that you do not feel the need to return to drugs and/or alcohol.


Medications are commonly used to treat PTSD symptoms, but they can also be used to relieve substance withdrawal symptoms. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication and opioids (Methadone), to name a few, are often used to lessen anxiety, relieve depression, stabilize emotions, improve brain function and reduce withdrawal symptoms.

The Relationship between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Abuse

Research suggests that people with PTSD have an elevated risk of substance abuse or drug and/or alcohol addictions. One recent study found that 35% of American men with PTSD, at one time, abused drugs and/or alcohol. The study also found that 27% of American women with PTSD, at one time, developed a dependency on drugs and/or alcohol.

Another study found that 52% of American men with PTSD reported that they were currently addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, while 28% of American women with PTSD reported that they were currently addicted drugs and/or alcohol. Men with PTSD were almost twice as likely to be addicted to drugs and/or alcohol then women with the condition.

Factors That Influence PTSD and Substance Abuse

Research suggests that there are certain factors that make some drug and/or alcohol abusers more prone to developing PTSD and some people with PTSD more likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol.

Some of these factors include:

High-Risk Theory

Some researchers believe that substance abuse can put people at risk for developing PTSD in the future. This theory states that the use, misuse or abuse of drugs and/or alcohol can increase your risk of developing PTSD following a traumatic experience. According to these proponents, drugs and/or alcohol can intensify the experience and worsen your PTSD symptoms.

Self-Medication Theory

Some researchers believe that you are more likely to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol if you struggle with PTSD. These proponents of the self-medication theory believe that people with PTSD abuse drugs and/alcohol as a way to temporarily forget the event, relieve their stress and alleviate their PTSD symptoms. For instance: an individual with PTSD may smoke marijuana as a way to relax, fall asleep or block painful PTSD-related memories.

Vulnerability Theory

Other researchers believe that there is a chemical component that causes some PTSD sufferers to be highly vulnerable to substance abuse and drug and/or alcohol addictions following a life-altering, traumatic experience.

Genetic Link Theory

The genetic link theory states that there is a genetic link between PTSD and substance abuse. The proponents, who support this theory, believe that some people have a gene that predisposes them to both PTSD and substance abuse.


Brady, K. T., Back, S. E., & Coffey, S. F. (2004). Substance abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 206-209.

Curley, A. J. (2012). Study shows PTSD symptoms improve when substance abuse treatment added. CNN.

United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2011). PTSD and substance abuse in veterans. National Center for PTSD. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.


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