How Can PTSD Lead to Alcoholism?

PTSD is the commonly used abbreviation for posttraumatic stress disorder, an officially diagnosable mental health condition that can appear in the aftermath of certain types of traumatic events or circumstances. Unfortunately, people affected by this condition have increased chances of developing alcoholism or other diagnosable problems with alcohol consumption. If you have PTSD, awareness of the link between the disorder and alcoholism can help you avoid drinking problems and the general worsening of your mental and physical health.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs when a highly traumatic situation overrides your natural ability to cope with stress and maintain a sense of mental/emotional equilibrium. Specific situations linked to the development of the condition include physical or sexual abuse during childhood, physical or sexual assault during adulthood, direct participation in combat, exposure to a combat zone and direct exposure to a natural disaster. Classic core symptoms of PTSD include unwanted reliving of the original trauma while awake or sleeping, a compelling urge to avoid anything that reminds you of the original trauma and an inability to turn off your brain’s “fight-or-flight” response, which usually only kicks in for short periods of time during dangerous or stressful events. Taken together, these symptoms can seriously degrade your ability to experience a sense of well-being, carry out a productive daily routine or maintain stable relationships with friends or family.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is the commonly used term for alcohol addiction, a condition that occurs when repeated exposure to excessive amounts of alcohol produces long-term, dysfunctional changes in the chemistry of your brain’s pleasure center. If you have an addiction to alcohol, your symptoms may include intense cravings for alcohol between drinking bouts, an inability to set limits on the amount of alcohol you regularly consume, an abandonment of previously favored activities in order to spend more time drinking, and the onset of withdrawal symptoms if your brain doesn’t receive the amount of alcohol it has come to expect. Officially, alcoholism is now part of a larger condition called alcohol use disorder (AUD), which also includes non-addicted alcohol abuse. The American Psychiatric Association created the AUD diagnosis because the symptoms of alcoholism and alcohol abuse often appear together in the same individual, rather than appearing separately.

The Link Between PTSD and Alcoholism

If you have PTSD, you can gain relief from your symptoms through a number of medically verified treatment options. Unfortunately, many people with the condition do not have access to adequate treatment resources, or fail to use the resources available to them. A person who doesn’t get medical help for PTSD may be tempted to self-medicate by consuming alcohol in excessive amounts. That’s because the symptoms of excessive alcohol intake (e.g., impaired judgment, memory loss and reduced self-consciousness) can mask the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and temporarily make you feel more at ease.

Regular consumption of large amounts of alcohol is a critical factor in the development of alcoholism. Under current guidelines published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men have increased chances of developing diagnosable alcohol use disorder if they habitually consume more than four drinks on any given day, or more than 14 drinks in a single week. Women have increased chances of developing AUD if they habitually consume more than three drinks on any given day, or more than seven drinks in a single week. If you inappropriately use alcohol to self-medicate for the symptoms of PTSD, you can easily surpass these limits and make alcoholism much more likely to occur.

Alcohol Consumption Can Worsen PTSD

Even if you do not develop enough problems to qualify for an official AUD diagnosis, use of alcohol as self-medication for posttraumatic stress disorder can make your PTSD substantially worse. That is because excessive drinking produces changes in your mental/emotional state that can reinforce the severity of your PTSD-related symptoms.

The Connection Runs Both Ways

According to data gathered by the federal National Center for PTSD, the connection between alcohol problems and posttraumatic stress disorder runs in both directions. If you have PTSD, you have statistically increased odds of developing alcoholism or diagnosable alcohol abuse. Conversely, if you have existing problems with alcoholism or alcohol abuse, you have increased chances of developing PTSD after exposure to a highly traumatic event or situation.

Fortunately, doctors can use both medications and psychotherapy to help you address the symptoms of PTSD without resorting to the inappropriate consumption of alcohol. The specific combination of treatments that works best for you depends on a number of factors, including the types of symptoms you have and the intensity of your symptoms. In the vast majority of cases, you can find the road back to good mental/emotional health through appropriate, supervised treatment.