Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism for Trauma and PTSD: Understanding the Link

Noah Warren
July 31, 2023

When individuals experience trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, accidents, or war-related events, the emotional impact can be overwhelming. Many seek solace through coping mechanisms, and unfortunately, some turn to substances like drugs and alcohol as a means of temporary relief.

This article aims to explore the complex relationship between trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use as a coping mechanism. By understanding this link, we can promote empathy, support, and effective interventions for those affected.

trauma and PTSD

The Connection Between Trauma, PTSD, and Substance Use

Trauma and PTSD can significantly impact an individual's psychological well-being. The distressing symptoms associated with these experiences, including intrusive memories, hypervigilance, and emotional dysregulation, can be unbearable for some. As a result, individuals may turn to substances as a way to numb or escape from their pain.

Coping and Self-Medication

Substance use as a coping mechanism for trauma and PTSD often arises from an individual's desire to self-medicate and alleviate emotional distress. Driven by a need to regulate intense emotions, individuals may turn to substances as a way to dull their overwhelming feelings, temporarily find relief, or escape their traumatic memories1.

The Cycle of Avoidance and Dissociation

Substance use can create a cycle of avoidance and dissociation, as individuals attempt to escape distressing emotions and memories associated with trauma and PTSD. The temporary relief provided by substances may reinforce the belief that drugs or alcohol are necessary for emotional regulation. This reinforcement further perpetuates the cycle of substance use as a coping mechanism.

Dual Diagnosis: PTSD and Substance Use Disorder

It is crucial to recognize that trauma, PTSD, and substance use often co-occur, leading to a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Approximately 30-60% of individuals seeking treatment for SUD also meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. This comorbidity poses unique challenges and requires an integrated treatment approach that addresses both conditions concurrently.

Understanding the Psychological Mechanisms

To comprehend why substances become attractive coping mechanisms for trauma and PTSD, it is essential to explore the underlying psychological mechanisms.

Self-Medication Hypothesis

The self-medication hypothesis suggests that individuals with PTSD use substances to alleviate their symptoms, seeking relief from distress, anxiety, and hyperarousal. Substances can provide temporary relief from the overwhelming emotional experiences associated with trauma and PTSD, albeit at the cost of long-term consequences.

Emotion Regulation Difficulties

Individuals with trauma and PTSD often struggle with emotion regulation difficulties, leading to intense emotional experiences and emotional dysregulation. Substances may offer temporary relief by modulating emotions and providing a temporary escape from distressing memories and emotions.

Avoidance and Stimulation of the Reward System

Substances can serve as a means of avoidance, allowing individuals to suppress traumatic memories and overwhelming emotions temporarily. Moreover, drugs and alcohol stimulate the brain's reward system, leading to pleasurable sensations that distract from emotional pain temporarily.

Treatment Approaches: Addressing Trauma and Substance Use

To support individuals who rely on substances as a coping mechanism for trauma and PTSD, it is vital to provide comprehensive treatment that addresses both the underlying trauma and the substance use issue.

Trauma-Focused Therapy

Approaches such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) focus on helping individuals process their traumatic experiences and develop healthy coping strategies. By addressing the root cause of the distress, individuals can decrease their reliance on substances as a means of escape or numbness.

Integrated Treatment Models

Integrated treatment models, such as Seeking Safety, aim to simultaneously address trauma and substance use in a cohesive manner. These models recognize the interconnectedness of trauma and substance use, offering a combination of trauma-focused therapy, substance use treatment, and psychoeducation to promote holistic healing.

Supportive Therapeutic Relationships

Creating a supportive therapeutic relationship founded on trust, empathy, and compassion is crucial. At Roots Mental Wellness, we believe that individuals who feel understood and validated are more likely to engage in treatment and explore healthier coping strategies. Therapists play an essential role in guiding individuals through their healing journey and empowering them to find healthier ways of coping with trauma and PTSD.

Substance use as a coping mechanism for trauma and PTSD arises from individuals' attempts to navigate overwhelming emotional pain and distress. At Roots Mental Wellness, we recognize this necessary coping mechanism and offer evidence-based treatment that addresses underlying trauma and promotes healthy coping strategies. We offer free consultations to provide support for individuals who may be struggling with trauma, PTSD, or substance use. Remember, no one has to face these challenges alone, and we are here to provide support.

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Noah Warren
Director of Business Development