Trauma and Substance Abuse

Friday, October 21, 2022 | By Andrew Bramlett

Man with stress and trauma

Trauma and Substance Abuse

Traumatic events and substance use issues are closely linked. Whether your traumatic stress is a result of something that happened in childhood or as an adult, those situations affect how you see the world and yourself.

What Is Considered Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is the medical definition used to describe a pattern of drug and alcohol misuse that causes severe issues in someone’s life. Substances most often abused include:

  • alcohol
  • marijuana
  • prescription medications
  • methamphetamine
  • cocaine
  • opioids/opiates
  • hallucinogens
  • inhalants

What Is Traumatic Stress?

The American Psychological Association defines traumatic stress as a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Traumatic stress symptoms can dissipate over time, but those with more intense symptoms likely need professional help.

Situations that are considered abnormal events include that can result in traumatic stress include:

  • child abuse
  • criminal attack
  • natural disasters
  • war
  • relational abuse
  • natural disasters
  • war
  • relational abuse

The Relationship Between Substance Use and Trauma

Those who’ve experienced traumatic events often opt for drug and alcohol abuse to self-medicate the symptoms they’re not ready or able to handle alone.

This can start a vicious cycle because continued drug and alcohol abuse can result in further traumatic events, worsening substance abuse, and so on.

Substance use and trauma-related disorders, such as PTSD and C-PTSD, wreak havoc on the person who has them and can create significant issues in their relationships with family and friends.

Substance Abuse As A Risk Factor for Trauma

Using drugs and alcohol may temporarily distract or relieve traumatized individuals who may suffer from debilitating symptoms. It’s crucial to stress that any relief felt from substance use is temporary, and ultimately does more harm than good.

Continued substance abuse can result in increased risky behavior, which is known to increase the likelihood of experiencing more traumatic events.

Trauma As A Risk Factor for Substance Abuse

Traumatized individuals are at a higher risk than others of similar backgrounds to abuse alcohol before and after a PTSD diagnosis.

Take the following statistics into consideration:

  • About 3/4 of people who’ve survived violent, traumatic events report problematic alcohol abuse.
  • Between 1/10 and 1/3 of those who survive an accident or illness-related trauma report abusing alcohol, especially if their trauma-related issue is chronic.
  • Men and women who report some form of sexual abuse have higher rates of alcohol and drug use disorders than their counterparts who were not sexually abused.

Children and Teens with Co-Occurring Trauma and Substance Abuse

  • The National Survey of Adolescents and other studies indicate that:
  • One-in-four children and adolescents are involved with at least one potentially traumatic event before they turn 16.
  • One in eight 17-year-olds has also experienced PTSD at some point in their lives.
  • Roughly 30 percent of adolescents have experimented with illegal drugs by the time they finish 8th grade.
  • Forty-one percent of children have consumed alcohol by this time as well.

This information indicates that the younger a child begins to experiment with substances, the more likely the habit becomes chronic and develops into an addiction.

More Issues Than Trauma And SUD

When someone experiences traumatic stress and a substance use disorder, they are also more likely to have another psychological or physical issue.

In fact, as many as 50 percent of adults with both conditions also have an anxiety disorder, depression disorder, or additional addictive behaviors (alcohol disorder and an opioid disorder.)

Physical health issues are also common in people with both PTSD and SUD. They are at an increased risk of chronic physical health problems (diabetes, heart disease, liver disease.) Or they will suffer from chronic pain with no apparent physical cause.

Common Barriers To Treatment

When someone experiences traumatization and substance abuse, it’s best for them to seek treatment from an experienced treatment professional. Treatment centers specializing in treating both conditions will better understand how both issues present and how to approach treatment.

Coordinating treatment programs is vital so that treatment for all disorders is integrated and the person is treated with a holistic approach.

If someone is not treated for their traumatic disorder, they’re more likely to start abusing substances again. And if their SUD isn’t addressed, they will struggle to overcome their traumatic stress symptoms.

Finding the Help Needed to Recover

There is hope for recovery. If you or a loved one require assistance, call our helpline today. Journey Pure can help address your unique treatment concerns no matter which set of disorders you struggle with.


International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies – Traumatic Stress and Substance Abuse Problems

National Library of Medicine – Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Post traumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network – Making the Connection: Trauma and Substance Abuse

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – Trauma and Violence


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