Learn about the relationship between acute stress disorder and substance abuse and discover treatment that can help you heal from both.

Trauma can affect an individual’s emotional, mental and physical well-being. While everyone reacts to trauma differently, its impacts can result in debilitating consequences, including addiction. People may use drugs or alcohol to “self-medicate” the distressing symptoms associated with trauma. Likewise, traumas that occur as a result of substance use may result in the development and perpetuation of acute stress disorder.

The relationship between acute stress disorder and substance use is a complicated one. Both represent mental illnesses, and both of them can inadvertently exacerbate symptoms of each other.

Effects of Drug Use on Acute Stress Disorder

Chronic drug use often goes hand-in-hand with lifestyle chaos and compounded stress. Therefore, there is an undeniable relationship between acute stress disorder and substance abuse. Although drugs may numb or suppress trauma temporarily, long-term healing rarely happens without professional intervention. Once someone decides to stop using drugs or alcohol, they may be surprised to discover that past wounds still trigger incredible distress. The presence of such suffering coupled with a lack of healthy coping skills can increase the risk for relapse.

Statistics on Acute Stress Disorder and Addiction

Research continues to highlight the concerning link between trauma and substance use. The majority of research has focused on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a complex, long-lasting mental illness that can result from trauma exposure. In many cases, untreated acute stress disorder leads to PTSD.

One study reports that up to 30–59% of women struggling with substance use disorders meet criteria for PTSD. Furthermore, over 20% of veterans with PTSD also struggle with a substance use disorder. Many individuals turn to drugs and alcohol to escape or cope with the symptoms of these conditions. Unfortunately, because substance use disorders are also connected with high-stress situations, the individual often faces an increased likelihood for perpetuated trauma.

Can Acute Stress Disorder Lead to Drug Abuse?

When a traumatic event happens, people cope in many ways. Some channel their energy into school or work. Others act as if the incident never happened and continue to adhere to their same routines. Others might react with intense emotions of anger, shame or guilt. These individuals may lash out at friends or family or withdraw from loved ones entirely.

Others may begin using drugs or alcohol to cope. If someone has already started taking drugs problematically, a traumatic event can trigger the behavior into a full-blown addiction. The individual may want to suppress or forget what happened. Amid the chaotic aftermath of trauma, substances may be their only source of escape or relief.

Treating Acute Stress Disorder and Co-Occurring Conditions

People seeking acute stress disorder treatment often benefit from a combination of professional therapy and medication. Therapy provides individuals with distress tolerance skills to reduce the severity of symptoms and encourages positive coping skills to manage future stressors. Medication can help address residual anxiety, depression or sleep-related problems.

Treatment for co-occurring disorders provides a valuable opportunity for people to receive support for both their addiction and other mental illnesses. Treating one without the other fails to address the individual’s recovery needs. As a result, they may face a higher risk of relapse.

At The Recovery Village, we offer comprehensive treatment for substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Read more about our facilities now or reach out to a representative today for more information.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Nicole Arzt
Nicole Arzt is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working in Southern California. Her clinical emphasis lies in working with females with substance use, eating disorders, and complex trauma. Read more

Najavits, L., Weiss, R., & Shaw, S. “The link between substance abuse and pos[…]n. A research review.” The American Journal on Addictions, 1997. Accessed March 20, 2018.

U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.” January 16, 2019. Accessed March 20, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.