Self-Medicating Is a Risky Form of Self-Treatment for PTSD

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People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly use or abuse drugs and/or alcohol. This self-treatment with substances, known as self-medicating, may help to explain the high rates of substance use disorders among people with PTSD.

PTSD and Substance Use Statistics

  • In the United States, 6-8% of adults in the general population have PTSD.
  • 10-30% of veterans have PTSD.
  • Among those with lifetime PTSD, approximately 46% also have a drug or alcohol use disorder.
  • People with PTSD are up to 14 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder compared to people who don't have a PTSD diagnosis.

The high rate of co-occurrence between PTSD and substance use has caused researchers to take interest in better understanding the relationship in hope of developing more effective, targeted, treatments.

Substance Use as Self-Treatment

Substance use disorders are more likely to follow the development of PTSD, suggesting having PTSD somehow increases a person's risk for substance use problems.

One major theory about the relationship between PTSD and substance use is that a person's drugs or alcohol use is motivated by their desire to escape or numb the distressing symptoms of PTSD. This is known as self-medicating.

Researchers have found specific relationships between certain PTSD symptoms and the types of substances used. For example, the severity of hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD is strongly connected with the use of substances that have a depressant or anti-anxiety effect, such as alcohol or marijuana.

Other Theories Regarding the Relationship Between PTSD and Substance Use

It's important to note, however, that self-medication is not the only theory as to why PTSD and substance use is related (however, this theory has the most evidence to date).

Other possible connections between PTSD and substance use disorders aside from self-medicating include:

  • Using substances may increase the chance someone will experience traumatic events, which in turn could lead to the development of PTSD.
  • Some people may have an underlying genetic vulnerability for developing both substance use disorders and PTSD.

Consequences of Self-Treating PTSD With Substances

If you turn to drugs or alcohol (or both) when you're dealing with PTSD, it may initially help you feel less distressed. However, in the long-run, self-medicating can cause many serious problems.

Substance use is a short-term fix. Your PTSD symptoms may come back stronger, resulting in an increased desire to use substances.

Additionally, if you have PTSD and a substance use disorder, you're at increased risk of experiencing a number of negative consequences, such as:

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Getting Help Instead of Self-Treating PTSD

People with PTSD want to alleviate the distress that results from symptoms, but substance use is not the answer. Specialized treatments for PTSD and substance use disorders have been developed and can help people cope.

One popular and well-established treatment is Seeking Safety, which can people understand the relationship between PTSD and substance use. It can also provide additional skills for managing distressing PTSD symptoms, which will decrease a person's reliance on drugs and alcohol to cope.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.