Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to misuse alcohol and other substances. By using alcohol to escape the mental distress they experience with PTSD, these individuals make themselves susceptible to an addiction that will exacerbate their original symptoms while also creating an additional threat to their physical and mental wellbeing.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health condition in which an individual experiences recurrent psychological distress as a delayed response to experiencing or witnessing a major traumatic event. The stress can occur moments, days, weeks, months, or even years after the triggering event.
The precipitating event for PTSD varies. It can come from a single traumatic event in which injury or a threat to life occurs, such as a car accident, a natural disaster, or a sexual assault. Or it can result from a repeated event, such as being the victim of sexual or physical abuse during childhood.
The National Center for PTSD estimates that 6% of U.S. adults will eventually experience PTSD. Some groups, such as military veterans, are more susceptible to the disorder, with seven of every 100 veterans experiencing PTSD at some point in their lives. Those who suffer from PTSD often experience symptoms that make their day-to-day life challenging. Among the symptoms are fear, anxiety, societal withdrawal, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Additionally, sufferers often have recurring dreams about the traumatic event that may lead to insomnia or other sleep disturbances.
PTSD also can cause physical manifestations, such as a racing heart, difficulty breathing, headaches, and other injurious symptoms. Often these symptoms are triggered by seemingly innocuous occurrences from everyday life, such as fireworks that sound like gunfire to a military veteran or the depiction of a car accident in a movie to someone who suffered a near-fatal crash.
The Correlation to Alcohol Use Disorder
Studies show that there is a relationship between PTSD and alcohol addiction. The National Center for PTSD reports as many as three-quarters of the individuals who survive abuse or violent traumatic events report having a drinking problem. As many as a third of those who survive traumatic accidents, disasters, or illness likewise report misusing alcohol.
Among those who study the correlation between the disorders, a theory has emerged that PTSD sufferers use alcohol as a self-medicating route to ease the mental and physical symptoms they are experiencing. However, self-medication with alcohol makes matters worse. Rather than eliminating PTSD, alcohol merely masks the symptoms—and even then, only for a short time.
PTSD sufferers may increase their drinking to prolong their relief. Not only does that make it harder to address the PTSD issue of memory-related trauma, but it also creates an alcohol addiction that carries its own detrimental symptoms and likewise needs to be treated.
PTSD sufferers who develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD) will deepen many of the symptoms they are already experiencing such as anxiety, depression, and loss of control. They’ll also develop additional physical problems associated with alcoholism, such as greater risk of stroke, heart disease, liver disease, and other illnesses. Moreover, AUD may lead to a deterioration of personal relationships at a time when the PTSD sufferer needs support from loved ones.
Treating PTSD and Alcohol Abuse
Taking a dual diagnosis approach to PTSD and AUD is the best way to help the individual recover from both disorders. This approach is based on the understanding that alcohol abuse isn’t the root of the individual’s problem but rather that something else—in this case, PTSD—is driving the addictive behavior. Purging the alcohol from the PTSD sufferer’s system is not sufficient, as it will only exacerbate the memory-induced trauma that brought on the addiction in the first place.
Far better is to treat PTSD and AUD simultaneously. This includes a detoxification process that occurs in conjunction with therapies that have proven successful in controlling PTSD. Such treatments as cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive processing therapy teach patients how to recognize the thoughts and feelings that lead to unwanted behaviors. Having identified the correlation, they can work at disrupting these patterns to ease their transition back to a normal life. Other techniques such as meditation, art and music therapy, journal writing, and social support likewise can help individuals overcome their PTSD without reverting to the use of alcohol.
PTSD is persistent, but it doesn’t have to last a lifetime. Those who have turned to alcohol to mask their PTSD symptoms can find help through a dual diagnosis approach that provides effective treatment leading to resumption of a healthy, happy life.
Beachside Rehab is a dual diagnosis treatment center that takes a clinical approach to helping PTSD patients overcome their addiction by treating the underlying cause. Contact our trained admissions counselors at 866-349-1770 to learn more.
National Library of Medicine. ” The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Use Disorder.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6561398/
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp