Substance Abuse and PTSD

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health disorder that can develop as the result of the experience or witnessing of a traumatic event, including natural disaster, death of a loved one, the conditions of war, violent situation, accident, or other life-threatening occurrences.

Individuals who have suffered a traumatic event may develop post-traumatic stress disorder at least one month following the trauma experience.

The most common symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder include but are not limited to the following:

  • Emotional disconnect
  • Avoidance of places, people and activities that may bring about reminders of the trauma
  • Distressing recollections of the traumatic event, including flashbacks and nightmares.
  • Disturbances in normal biological patterns, such as sleep and appetite
  • Physiological reactions to the traumatic event
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Destructive or reckless behaviors
  • Tendencies towards aggressiveness and irritability.

The Huge Strain of PTSD

The tremendous stress and anxiety that is experienced through PTSD can be debilitating and overwhelming for both the sufferer and their loved ones involved. Many individuals who struggle with PTSD may turn to alcohol or drugs as a mean of distracting or numbing the pain that they often experience on a daily basis.

The connection between substance abuse is especially strong for women, with research revealing that the rates for co-morbid PTSD and substance abuse disorders being two to three times high for females than males1.

The Temporary Relief of Substance Abuse

sadnessBecause of the intense anxiety often associated with PTSD, drugs or alcohol offer a temporary relief of symptoms.

This can further encourage and reinforce addictive behaviors, especially as the brain begins to associate relief with maladaptive behaviors. As a person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol, the body will also become physically dependent, which only further underlines the strength of an addiction in correlation with PTSD.

Seeking professional help and assistance is crucial for a person to find relief from PTSD and freedom from an addiction to drugs or alcohol. If you or someone you care for is dealing with these mental illnesses, please do not delay in finding treatment and the resources you need to recover.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What aspects of PTSD might make it especially challenging to recover from co-morbid substance abuse? Why do you think the treatment of these co-occurring disorders simultaneously is crucial for recovery?


  1. Volpicelli, Joseph MD, et al. The role of uncontrollable trauma in the development of PTSD and alcohol addiction. Alcohol Research and Health Accessed 10 May 2015

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 2nd, 2015
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