The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Substance Abuse

Published by John Gillen | Last updated: 21st May 2024 | All Sources

The Link Between Sexual Abuse and Substance Abuse

Most people will agree that there is a wide range of factors that contribute to a person’s chances of struggling with addiction later in life.

Not all of these will affect every person, and those who do suffer from substance abuse issues will often have a completely different combination of factors that have affected them in a variety of different ways.

This said, it is possible to see patterns in the contributing factors reported by those with addictions, which include things like mental health issues, genetics and poverty. Trauma is another factor which has a clear link with addiction, and a history of sexual abuse is very commonly reported.

Some of the main responses to sexual abuse, which have been known to increase the risk of addiction, include:



It is very common for victims of sexual abuse to be later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are many symptoms of PTSD and not everyone will display all of them, but some of the most common are:

  • Intrusive thoughts. These can include flashbacks of the abuse that they suffered, dreams related to abuse and negative thoughts related to guilt, shame or sadness about what they have been through.
  • Although a recognised mental illness in itself, situational depression can occur in those suffering from PTSD, wherein they have feelings of misery and hopelessness, loss of joy in previously enjoyed activities and isolation from family and friends.
  • Irritability and reactivity. This includes self-destructive behaviours and emotional outbursts, as well as difficulty dealing with even the smallest amounts of stress.
  • Many victims of PTSD will try to avoid talking about or dealing with the trauma that they have suffered. Although this may seem to be a useful tactic at first, it often makes the person more vulnerable to negative coping mechanisms, such as drugs and alcohol.

Self-medication with alcohol and other substances is very common amongst those with PTSD, as a way to subdue thoughts and feelings that they are trying to repress.



Much more than simply feeling worried or out-of-sorts, anxiety is a persistent state of fear and worry that can be debilitating for the sufferer. Many people that have anxiety find it impossible to deal with everyday life, struggling with everything from social situations to simply going out of the house.

People that have suffered from sexual abuse often struggle with anxiety, which may be associated with the fear of abuse happening again but can also just be a reflection of their damaged mental state. The most serious symptom associated with anxiety is panic attacks, which are intense outbursts of anxiety which have severe physical symptoms, including heart racing, difficulty breathing, light-headedness and nausea.



Whilst also associated with PTSD, depression is a standalone condition that can be very difficult and painful for the sufferer. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Extreme sadness over a prolonged period of time
  • Lethargy
  • Hopelessness
  • Lack of interest in any activity
  • Weight changes
  • Emotional ‘flatness’
  • Feeling suicidal

People with depression will often find it very difficult to function, day-to-day, and may let responsibilities fall by the wayside over time.


Substance abuse as a coping mechanism

Research has found that adults who were abused as children are 1.5 times more likely to have used illicit drugs compared with those who were not abused. Drug use is more common than alcohol use, and the average age for onset of drug use is just 14 years old for children who have suffered from sexual abuse.

This young age may well be caused by the child still being present in the environment in which the abuse is occurring and using drugs to cope, making it clearer why so many abuse survivors struggle with addiction later in life.

Drugs and alcohol are used as coping mechanisms by many, for various reasons including:

  • Helping to improve feelings of self-worth
  • Appearing to make it easier to cope with anxiety, depression or PTSD
  • Helping to deal with feelings of isolation
  • Helping to block out traumatic memories, or make it easier to cope with them


Recovery from sexual abuse

Whilst it is common for sufferers of sexual abuse to struggle with addiction, it is also possible for these people to deal with their issues healthily and recover from both their abuse and substance abuse problems. Rehabilitation services do much more than helping a person to detox from drugs or alcohol, they also provide counselling and support services that get to the root of the issue and provide a foundation for starting life again having dealt with those problems.

Thanks to counselling and group therapy sessions, people who are struggling with substance abuse as the result of sexual abuse are able to:

  • Learn how to process their emotions and get them under control. Clients are taught healthy coping mechanisms and tricks which can help them to face their feelings and deal with them in a way which feels more proactive and powerful.
  • Learn how to take care of themselves. Many survivors of sexual abuse come from homes where they have never really been taught how to live healthy and productive lives. Rehab can help to teach them self-care in a way that is useful and healing.
  • Where they can get help. At Cassiobury Court, the end of rehab isn’t the end of the support that is offered to clients. A dedicated recovery programme is available for up to 12 months after the end of rehab, ensuring that help is available 24/7. Not only this but the range of services and support offered, including everything from group therapy to yoga, offers new ideas for getting help, and new coping mechanisms for the future.


The road to recovery from addiction is a long one anyway, and for those with a painful history, this is likely to be even more difficult. But this is why rehabilitation services exist, and for many struggling with complex issues, it could be the only successful way of beating addiction.

We can be contacted on 01923 369 161 or you can text HELP to 83222 to get started on your rehab journey.


John Gillen

John Gillen - Author Last updated: 21st May 2024

John Gillen is a leading addiction treatment expert with over 15 years of experience providing evidence-based treatment methods for individuals throughout the UK. John also co-authors the book, The Secret Disease of Addiction, which delves into how the addictive mind works and what treatment techniques work best.