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Medically Reviewed

Why Do So Many People with PTSD Struggle with Addiction?

- 4 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Most people experience many periods of stress in their lifetime. Working, raising children, even just taking care of daily responsibilities–life is full of stress. Many people develop healthy ways to manage their day-to-day stress and can cope with normal challenges and disappointments.

But sometimes people go through stressful events that change their life. The stress of the event may overwhelm their ability to cope in healthy ways. When someone experiences an event that causes them to fear for their life or causes intense distress, they may feel the effects of it for years. We call this “trauma”.

The lingering emotional response to a traumatic event that happened in the past is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can have profound effects on a person’s ability to live a happy, healthy life. Left untreated, PTSD can also lead to addiction.

Researchers are beginning to explore the relationship between PTSD and addiction and it is clear that a link between PTSD and substance abuse exists. Understanding more about this connection may help you make decisions about your own care or treatment for someone you love.

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health disorder that can develop after someone experiences a traumatic event. Some examples of traumatic events include:

  • Military service or combat
  • A serious accident, illness, or injury–this could be a car accident, fall, traumatic birth, significant medical diagnosis, or any other traumatic medical event
  • Natural disaster–a flood, fire, earthquake, hurricane, or tornado
  • Being the victim of an assault–sexual or violent, as a child or as an adult
  • WItnessing terrorism
  • Death of a loved one

This is not a complete list. Trauma can occur in any situation where a person feels they are in great danger or experience overwhelming stress.

The most common symptom of PTSD is stress. This stress can show up in many ways, from disruptions in sleep and appetite, chronic anxiety, depression, nightmares, and flashbacks. Symptoms can develop soon after the person experiences the traumatic event or can take months–or even years–to show up. The way a person experiences their trauma might change over time, and their symptoms may also change.[1] Some people with PTSD struggle to cope with these symptoms and attempt to self-medicate using drugs and alcohol, ultimately developing an addiction.

PTSD can be treated by trained medical and mental health professionals. People can learn coping mechanisms that help them manage the stress that lingers after a traumatic event.

Exploring the Link Between PTSD and Addiction

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder causes significant, life-altering stress. Often, trauma shows up in people’s lives in uncomfortable, sometimes excruciating ways. The agitation, anxiety, fear, nightmares, and flashbacks that come with PTSD can keep people from enjoying their lives or feeling truly comfortable in their daily lives.

Without treatment, people can suffer from the symptoms of their PTSD for years. In many cases, people with PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the uncomfortable symptoms of this condition. They may use drugs or alcohol to help them avoid feeling the pain of social anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. They may also use substances to try to manage their disrupted sleep patterns or nightmares.

Sometimes, people with PTSD work hard to avoid situations, events, or people that may be a trigger for their stress. In some cases, though, people are unable to completely avoid these triggers. Not being able to escape these triggers can be very stressful, and in some cases, people may turn to drugs and alcohol to avoid the feelings associated with these triggers.

Each person has their own journey with addiction and reasons for using substances in the first place. What is clear is that people with PTSD are more likely than the general public to abuse drugs and alcohol. This increases their likelihood of developing a substance use disorder or addiction.[2]

What Treatment is Available for PTSD and Substance Abuse?

When someone has a diagnosed mental health disorder and addiction, it is important that they receive treatment for both conditions at the same time. Having both a mental illness and a substance use disorder is called having a dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis treatment is more successful in the long term than only mental health treatment or addiction treatment alone.

PTSD and addiction require a complex, comprehensive, and costly treatment course when compared to one condition alone. This is because individuals with both conditions are more susceptible to chronic health problems, poor social functioning, more suicide attempts, more legal issues, an increased risk of violence, and poor treatment retention.[2]

A trauma-informed care program incorporates clinical treatments for PTSD with substance abuse treatment for better outcomes.

Addiction treatment usually happens in stages. These stages are:

Detox: You are monitored and treated for any uncomfortable or dangerous withdrawal symptoms, allowing you to have a safe, complete detox.

Treatment: You will receive an individualized treatment plan that will meet your unique needs. Generally, addiction treatment includes group and individual therapy, education, medication, and holistic treatments.

Aftercare: Since addiction is never truly “cured”, people must find ways to stay engaged in recovery and committed to sobriety. You may choose to attend group support meetings, continue holistic treatments, or stay active in individual therapy–or any other activities that are helpful.

When treating PTSD alongside addiction, you will usually receive counseling that is specific to your trauma. Your therapist will work with you to identify and heal the source of your trauma and give you tools to manage your stress in healthy ways.

Find Help for PTSD and Addiction Today

If you or someone you love need supportive, comprehensive addiction treatment, reach out to the staff at the Carolina Center for Recovery. We offer a trauma and PTSD program in North Carolina that can be tailored to meet your unique needs.

We believe that anyone can recover from addiction if they have the right support. Don’t wait another day for the life-changing treatment you need. Call today to get started on your recovery journey.