The Link Between PTSD and Alcoholism


Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a serious mental illness that typically develops after a traumatic or terrifying event. Much attention has been brought to the disease by the fact that many military men and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have struggled with PTSD. These people, and others with the disorder, are also more likely than their peers to develop an alcohol abuse problem. Coping with PTSD and alcoholism together can be a double challenge and it can lead to a number of issues.

PTSD Leads to Drinking

It should not come as a surprise that people struggling with trauma would self-medicate with alcohol. People with PTSD have disruptive and scary symptoms, including realistic flashbacks to the traumatic event, nightmares and terrifying thoughts. Things that don’t typically disturb others, such as loud noises, easily startle PTDS sufferers. They often feel tense or constantly on edge. They find it difficult to relax and may avoid certain places and situations. They may even avoid all social situations. To escape these emotions and experiences, it is not unusual for someone with PTSD to self-medicate.

A recent study confirmed just how common it is for sufferers of PTSD to have problems with alcohol. Researchers administered tests to over 300 college-aged participants. The tests looked for signs of problem drinking and of PTSD. The researchers then analyzed the results to find connections between drinking and PTSD. They found that 52 percent of men with PTSD abused alcohol. The rate in women was 28 percent. Study volunteers who exhibited problem drinking had more severe PTSD symptoms and were likely to seek out coping mechanisms, such as drinking.

Treating Alcoholism and PTSD

It is important for people with PTSD to get treatment. It becomes even more important to get treatment when a sufferer is abusing alcohol. It may be seen as a coping mechanism, but it is an unhealthy one that can lead to alcoholism and other mental and physical health issues. Without treatment, people with both PTSD and an alcohol use disorder will experience detrimental life impacts. These include unemployment, social dysfunction, disrupted relationships and poverty, among other consequences.

Most experts agree that treating both conditions is important, but there was long a concern that the standard treatment for PTSD could lead patients to drink even more. A successful treatment used for many PTSD patients is called prolonged exposure therapy. This treatment involves asking the patient to face the terrifying memories and experiences that led to the PTSD. The patient is forced to face what he has been avoiding. It was thought that using this therapy, which does help PTSD sufferers, would make alcohol abuse worse.

Recent work has proven that assumption false. A study that investigated patients getting both prolonged exposure therapy and naltrexone treatment for alcoholism found that participants did not drink more. In fact, what they found was that the medical (naltrexone) treatment helped reduce the patients’ drinking. The exposure therapy helped them resist relapsing later. Together, these two treatments are helping PTSD patients who have also developed drinking problems.

The issue of alcoholism and PTSD is an important one. There are many people, those serving in the military as well as civilians, struggling with PTSD. Too many of them will turn to alcohol as a way to cope with terrible memories and feelings. It is up to the mental health community and medical researchers to find the best ways to treat these patients, and their work is paying off.

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