Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) And Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on July 5, 2021

People with acute stress disorder (ASD) are at an extremely high risk of developing a co-occurring substance use disorder. Therapeutic interventions can help people with ASD understand and address their traumatic experiences without using drugs or alcohol to suppress or alter their mental state.

Co-Occurring Acute Stress Disorder And Addiction

Acute stress disorder (ASD) often occurs in people immediately after a traumatic event. ASD generally occurs in the wake of a loved one’s sudden death, major personal injury, or other massively disruptive, traumatic episode.

Addiction can occur when people with ASD use drugs or alcohol to address resulting flashbacks and other signs of ASD.

Signs of addictive behavior may start slowly as a seemingly reflexive response to trauma (“I need a drink”), but can prevent people with ASD from seeking help to address the causes of their ASD symptoms.

Learn more about co-occurring addiction and stress/trauma-related disorders

What Is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder can be diagnosed within days of a traumatic life event. When symptoms last more than one month, professionals categorize symptoms as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A diagnosis of acute stress disorder is given under a strict set of criteria where symptoms impact a person’s ability to function normally.

Signs of Acute Stress Disorder include:

  • traumatic, intrusive flashbacks, memories, or nightmares
  • avoiding triggers or reminders of past trauma
  • being hyper-reactive to triggers
  • increased reactivity or persistent arousal that makes sleep, concentration, or calmness difficult
  • feelings of irritability, impulsive behavior, and disassociation
  • inability to experience positive emotions, and more frequent negative emotions like anger, shame, guilt, or sadness

Signs Of Drug Or Alcohol Abuse

When a person abuses drugs or alcohol, they may begin to behave or look different.

Addiction to some drugs may cause rapid weight loss and an inability to maintain employment. Other substance abuse may be more subtle on the surface.

Still, a person that abuses drugs or alcohol will change. Signs of drug or alcohol abuse may be more pronounced following a traumatic life experience, or it may be mistaken for a person processing trauma.

Signs of drug or alcohol abuse may include:

  • detaching from friends, family, and preferred activities
  • sudden mood changes or strange behavior
  • being deceptive about drug use or hiding evidence
  • taking on atypical or needless risks
  • evidence of taking drugs or alcohol to function normally
  • changes in hygiene (hair/skin) or general health

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What Causes Co-Occurring Addiction And Acute Stress Disorder?

Addiction commonly occurs as a reaction to stress and flashbacks following a traumatic experience. People with ASD may use substances to self-medicate and may not recognize the behavior as unhealthy.

Sometimes, when a person has experienced physical suffering or trauma, they may continue to use opioids or other sedatives previously prescribed.

How Common Is Co-Occurring Substance Abuse And Acute Stress Disorder?

It is very common for a person that is experiencing symptoms of ASD to seek out feelings of calm and get a good night’s sleep. Opioids and alcohol are commonly used to sedate and keep negative feelings suppressed.

People with ASD may also use “uppers” like cocaine or amphetamines that may increase positive feelings and can act as a sort of emotional protection against feelings of powerlessness.

Dangers Of Substance Abuse And Acute Stress Disorder

When drugs are used to suppress negative emotions or trigger positive feelings, the addictive properties may make impulse control more difficult and may ultimately worsen symptoms of ASD.

Increased suicide risk is tied to substance abuse in people with ASD and PTSD.

People that use benzodiazepines to ease anxiety related to ASD are at an increased risk of sustained PTSD. This may be due to a reliance on the substance and an avoidance of managing symptoms without drugs.

Risk Factors Of Addiction and Acute Stress Disorder

People that have ASD may be more likely to become addicted to substances if they:

  • have experienced severe prior trauma
  • are female
  • have a co-occurring mental disorder
  • avoid coping
  • are easily startled

What Are The Most Effective Treatments?

Treatment of a person with the dual diagnosis of ASD and drug or alcohol addiction can happen with a combination of therapy and medication for addiction (as needed).

Because the underlying reason for substance abuse can be appropriately addressed with therapies, these are often the consideration.

Group And Individual Therapy

Therapies that encourage a person to understand how thoughts impact action can be useful in addressing both addiction and ASD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is highly effective.

Similarly, a person that learns to address and understand the root of their trauma often experiences positive outcomes. Exposure therapy can help a person remove trauma by reliving elements.

Medications that can help with withdrawals during detox from some substances include:

  • buprenorphine (Suboxone)
  • methadone
  • naltrexone (Vivitrol)

As necessary, some people with ASD and addiction may be given SSRI antidepressants as part of integrated treatment.

Finding Dual Diagnosis Treatment For Acute Stress Disorder And Addiction

If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction and acute stress disorder, help is available.

Both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are well-equipped to help with a range of ASD and addiction co-occurrences.

Help is available — and with the right help, both ASD and addiction can be overcome. Talk to one of our treatment specialists to learn more about the best dual diagnosis treatment programs.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on July 5, 2021
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