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Substance Misuse as a Coping Mechanism

Military life can be rough on your mind and body. Deployments, training, separation from family and injuries are just a few common stressors. These can lead to physical and psychological health concerns that service members may struggle to cope with.

Some service members turn to substance misuse in an effort to feel better. Substance misuse could include:

  • Heavy drinking
  • Tobacco use
  • Misuse of over-the-counter or prescription drugs
  • Illegal drug use

Misusing substances may seem to give you immediate comfort or a temporary escape. However, it can lead to more psychological or physical health concerns in the long run. You may be experiencing a concern like pain from an injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression. Instead of addressing the root cause, substance misuse temporarily numbs pain or psychological health concerns.

You might hear this called "self-medicating," but it is a dangerous coping mechanism. It can threaten your health, your personal relationships, your career and your unit's readiness.

Fortunately, there are many healthy ways to cope without substances. Some options include:

  • Seeing a health care provider
  • Getting social support from friends, family or fellow service members
  • Talking to a chaplain
  • Exercising or meditating
  • Unwinding with a hobby you enjoy

Healthy coping mechanisms can help you avoid substance misuse and stay on track while working with a health care professional.

Symptoms of Substance Misuse

Recognizing the signs of substance misuse as an unhealthy coping mechanism is the first step to getting help. Talk to a health care professional right away if you or a loved one regularly uses substances to:

  • Enhance mood
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Escape reality
  • Fall asleep
  • Block traumatic memories
  • Numb powerful emotions

Using substances in this way could be a sign of an underlying physical or psychological health concern that should be treated.

Treating Substance Misuse

A health care professional can work with you to create a plan to address the root cause of your substance misuse and help treat addictions you may be experiencing.

There are many effective treatment options like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). With CBT you will work with your health care provider to change your pattern of thoughts, and the feelings and behaviors they cause. Other approaches may be used alone or with CBT including Medication-Assisted Treatment, or reward-based treatments that give patients positive reinforcement for stopping substance misuse.

It takes work to address the root cause that may be leading you or someone you know to misuse substances. In the long run, however, it will help keep you, and those around you, healthy and mission ready.

If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants. Call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also see a list of key psychological health resources here.

Additional Resources:


  1. Alford, D., German, J., Samet, J., Cheng, D., Lloyd-Travagini C., Saitz, R. (2016). Primary care patients with drug use report chronic pain and self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs. Journal of General Internal Medicine,31(5): 486-491. doi: 10.1007/s11606-016-3586-5
  2. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. (2013). Substance use disorder in the U.S. armed forces. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  3. Larson, M. J., Wooten, N. R., Adams, R. S., Merrick, E. L. (2012). Military combat deployments and substance use: Review and future directions, Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 12(1), 6-27. doi: 10.1080/1533256X.2012.647586
  4. National Guideline Clearinghouse (NGC). (2015). Guideline summary: VA/DOD clinical practice guideline for the management of substance use disorders. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). Substance abuse in the military.
  6. Roberts, N., Roberts, P., Jones, N., Bisson, J. (2015). Psychological interventions for post-traumatic stress disorder and comorbid substance use disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 28, 25-38. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2015.02.007
  7. Schumm, J. A., Chard, K. M. (n.d.). Alcohol and stress in the military. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 34(4), 401-07.
  8. Soper, R. G. (2014). Intimate Partner Violence and Co-Occurring Substance Abuse/Addiction. Resources
  9. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Facing addiction in America: The surgeon general's report on alcohol, drugs, and health . Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services.
Last Updated: December 16, 2022
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