The Connection Between Military Service, Trauma, and Substance Use

A veteran in a military uniform talking about the connection between military service, trauma, and substance use

During your military service, you might face really tough situations that are hard on your body and mind. Sometimes, these hard moments can even cause trauma. Trauma happens when something that happened leaves you feeling shaken. You might try to handle these tough emotions by turning to alcohol or drugs. However, this is not a workable solution. In fact, this is not a solution. It just makes things worse. So, we want to help you understand the connection between military service, trauma, and substance use. Once you know about it, you can get the support you need and change your life for the better.

The challenges of military life

Serving in the military demands a lot from you. Besides physical strength or stamina, it also challenges you mentally in ways many never face. You go through rigorous training and need to be alert constantly. Also, you miss your loved ones and never know what will happen next.

In service, you might witness or go through events that stick with you. These events are hard to shake off. It could be a narrow escape, witnessing an injury, or losing comrades. Such experiences can deeply impact your mental well-being. And it does not end with your military service. We can see the connection between military service, trauma, and substance use in how you feel and behave once you return home.


depressed person sitting alone
A connection between military service, trauma, and substance use is strong.

Understanding trauma

Trauma happens when something very distressing happens, leaving you with intense, negative emotions. It could be the result of various events, like car accidents, severe weather incidents, or challenging times in the military.

Returning from military service might complicate reconnecting with loved ones. For example, your family might not understand what you are going through. That, in turn, can make you feel lonely or distressed, even in their company.

At the same time, re-entering the workforce or seeking new employment presents additional hurdles if you are struggling with trauma-related emotions. Such circumstances can disrupt your focus and increase stress beyond what was once manageable. Injuries sustained during service, or the physical impact of stress may also interfere with daily routines.

Trauma-related mental health issues

Trauma may lead to:

  • PTSD: You keep thinking about the terrible things that happened, have bad dreams, or feel like you are always in danger. That can make it hard to think, do your job, or be with family and friends. Even normal things like loud noises or crowded places can make you feel scared.
  • Anxiety: You are always worried that something bad is going to happen, and you cannot calm down. You might stay away from places or people that make you feel more worried. That can stop you from enjoying things.
  • Depression: This makes you feel sad and tired all the time. You might not want to get out of bed, talk to anyone, or do things you used to like. It might lead to sleep disorders, as well. Even trivial things can seem too hard to do.

Substance abuse caused by trauma

If you feel overwhelmed by these issues, you might turn to alcohol or drugs to forget about them. In fact, there is a strong link between mental health issues such as PTSD and substance abuse. You might think of it as a way to escape your feelings. And while it might seem to help temporarily, it often makes the situation worse overall. Substance abuse just adds to the stress and makes your mental health issues more difficult to treat.


A person sitting alone holding a bottle of beer
Many veterans drink alcohol to cope with trauma.

The most common substances used by veterans

Here are the most common substances veterans use, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • Alcohol. A 2017 study revealed that 57% more veterans consume alcohol than those who have not served (51%) within a month. In seeking help for substance issues, 65% of veterans identified alcohol as their main concern, nearly double the rate among non-veterans.
  • Prescription drugs. The instances of opioid overdose among veterans increased from 14% in 2010 to 21% in 2016.
  • Tobacco. Compared to non-veterans, veterans are more likely to use tobacco across nearly all age categories. Around 30% of veterans admit to using tobacco.
  • Illegal Drugs. Reports indicate that in substance use treatment programs, about 10.7% of veterans are there for heroin and a bit over 6% for cocaine use.

Getting the right help

If your mental health issues are interfering with your daily life, it is advisable to seek mental health treatment as soon as possible. Do not worry; there are many excellent mental health centers available to provide the support you need. However, early detection and treatment is extremely important. With professional counseling and medication, you can regain control of your life. After all, these evidence-based treatments reshape your neural pathways and teach you healthier coping mechanisms.

In addition, treatment can also help you:

  1. Lighten the load. Treatment can make you feel less burdened, helping you regain control over your life.
  2. Understand yourself. It helps you figure out your feelings and how to deal with them without substances.
  3. Heal relationships. Working through your issues can improve your connections with those you care about.
  4. Find your people. Many programs connect you with other veterans who get what you are going through.
  5. Get healthier. Beyond just feeling better mentally, treatment supports your physical recovery from substance use.

What you can do

To improve your situation and address physical and mental health issues, take these steps:

  1. Ask for help. Chat with family, friends, or other veterans. Talking helps greatly.
  2. Get professional advice. See a counselor or therapist for mental or physical issues. These experts know what you need.
  3. Keep moving. Physical activity will help you deal with psychological issues, such as stress, and with physical problems, such as chronic pain. Pick something you like doing. Try walking, biking, or joining a sports team.
  4. Pick up a hobby. Doing things, you love can be a good escape and might help you not want to use substances.
  5. Learn how to cope better. Try mindfulness, deep breathing, or meditation.
  6. Inform yourself. Understand the dangers of substance abuse and know where to look for help if needed.
Two veterans putting their fists together
Get the support you need

Final thoughts on the connection between military service, trauma, and substance use

In conclusion, the connection between military service, trauma, and substance use is extraordinarily strong. Trauma makes it hard for you to get back to the life you had before your service. Even your everyday life might bring you problems. Apart from that, trauma can cause PTSD, anxiety, and depression. When you start drinking or using substances, everything becomes even harder. So, you do not need that. Instead, you need therapy, support groups, and healthcare experts who will help you heal. Seek professional help, learn healthy coping skills, and you will live the life you want.


Lauren Barry is a licensed marriage and family therapist, EMDR-approved therapist, and qualified supervisor. As the National Director of Quality Assurance at We Level UP and Owner/Therapist at Barry Happy Couples, she helps people overcome life’s challenges. Lauren supports people and couples in improving their mental health and finding happiness in their lives and relationships.


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