The link between PTSD and Substance Abuse

By May 27, 2020July 21st, 2021Blog

Many people will experience some kind of traumatic event in their lives, and they will exhibit some kind of stress-related behavior as a result of it. These symptoms usually fade, but for some, those reactions can linger and disrupt their lives or the lives of those around them. These reactions can develop into psychological disorders including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In an effort to cope, sometimes individuals resort to substance use.

According to the National Center for PTSD, of all the Vietnam veterans seeking treatment for PTSD, between 60 and 80 percent also require treatment for substance abuse. Research also suggests that almost 50% of people with PTSD have a co-occurring substance abuse issue.

It can be difficult to recover from addiction if the underlying problem is not treated. However, some people believe that the underlying problem cannot be treated without first treating the addiction. While this treatment controversy continues, many are moving toward a model of treating both at the same time. Addiction that is rooted in deeper psychological issues, especially in emotional trauma like PTSD, often requires some version of dual treatment to untangle both issues. On the bright side, while PTSD and substance abuse may be distressing and complex, people can begin to heal given the chance and the resources.


Car crashes, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, war, and violence are all considered traumatic events. Trauma is defined as an emotional, psychological response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.

Whether someone witnesses or is personally involved in a traumatic event, there are a set of possible responses they may experience. People experiencing trauma may experience just one to all of the symptoms listed below.

The symptoms and responses to trauma include: 

  • Emotions such as shock, denial, guilt, or self-blame
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Numbness 
  • Changes in mood such as irritability, tension, anxiety, negativity, gloom, and disinterest
  • Recurring memories 
  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits 
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs 
  • Physical symptoms like unexplained aches and pains, nausea, extreme tiredness, and/or loss of energy

Many of these feelings are a normal part of the recovery process after experiencing a traumatic event. However, sometimes these feelings continue without any signs of diminishing. When trauma begins to interfere with a person’s ability to function, it can come to be known as PTSD.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD was once known as “shell shock,” a term used to describe a soldier’s reaction to the intensity of the bombardment and fighting during World War I. However, PTSD is not limited to only people who have experienced war and combat. Anyone who experiences trauma is very much at risk of developing PTSD. PTSD is defined as a psychological disorder generated by either witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.

Some symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving the event. Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event; reliving the traumatic event (flashbacks); upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event; severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that is remindful of the event.
  • Avoiding situations associated with the event. Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event; avoiding people, places, and activities that remind one of the traumatic event. 
  • Excessive physiological arousal. Being easily startled or frightened; self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast; trouble sleeping and concentrating; irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior; overwhelming guilt or shame.
  • Negative changes in emotions and beliefs. Being easily startled or frightened; self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast; trouble sleeping and concentrating; irritability, angry outbursts, or aggressive behavior; overwhelming guilt or shame.

Some people believe there may be genetic predispositions making some people more vulnerable than others. It is also known that context and environment can have an impact. For instance, someone who has experienced childhood abuse might feel on one hand more ready to deal with difficult and traumatic experiences, but on the other hand they might be more likely to default to the suppression and avoidance in which people with PTSD frequently engage in. In other words, they may already be dealing with PTSD to some extent.

For a long time, most psychologists understood PTSD through the lens of fear conditioning, the unshakable memory of being in mortal danger and the learned responses that stem from that memory. However, clinicians have also begun to recognize that for some, the disorder can also be a kind of moral injury, widening the focus to include haunting not just of violence done to a person, but also what that person did or did not do to others.

When any psychological disorder, including PTSD, is left untreated, the person affected may start to feel desperate to find some way to cope. One of these coping mechanisms unfortunately is substance abuse.

Substance Abuse

According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2 in 10 veterans with PTSD also struggle with substance abuse. Additionally, 1 in every 3 veterans seeking treatment for substance abuse also have PTSD.

Substance abuse is described as compulsive, excessive, and difficult to control substance use or other, initially pleasurable behavior that begins to interfere with ordinary life, work, health, or relationships. This could mean over-consuming drugs or alcohol, or compulsive gambling, eating, shopping, exercising, or having sex. People with addictions may not even realize they have lost control of their behaviors until well after they become addicted.

Addiction can refer to physical dependence, a physiological need for a drug that reveals itself through unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if the use stops or reduces. It can also refer to psychological dependence, which is a psychological need to use a drug, or complete an activity to relieve negative emotions.

People with an addiction are oftentimes stigmatized as pleasure-seekers lacking self-control. However, people often compulsively use substances or do things in reaction to stress and other psychological problems. For various reasons, they have not been able to cope in other, healthier ways, or may have never learned how.

Importance of Early and Treatment and Intervention

Fortunately, there is hope for people who are suffering from PTSD and substance abuse. There are treatments, such as Accelerated Resolution Therapy®(ART), available to help them regain control over their life.

Intervene as soon as possible on behalf of someone suffering from PTSD and substance abuse. Uncharacteristic behavior becomes increasingly destructive. Over time, buried and suppressed memories become more and more powerful. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy® (ART) is an innovative, evidence-based therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, stress, and similar mental health issues. Initially, the therapy was primarily used to help veterans suffering from PTSD. One of the major advantages is the speed at which ART is able to bring relief. Generally, only one to five sessions are needed, not months or years of expensive psychiatric treatment. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy works by reprogramming the traumatic memories that are preventing an individual from enjoying the full life they deserve. The techniques work equally well on anyone suffering from trauma, regardless of the type of trauma experienced. Trauma, at the end of the day, is still trauma.

Regardless of how bad things may be, there is always hope, and there is always someone available to help you through difficult times. Contact ART International to learn more about ART or to find a therapist near you.

ART International Training and Research Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to Accelerated Resolution Therapy® for individuals suffering from trauma and other mental health diagnoses through innovative research and clinician training and education.