How Alcohol Affects PTSD

How Alcohol Affects PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious physical and psychological condition that is caused by exposure to intensely stressful circumstances and experiences such as the following:

  • Battlefield violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Violent crimes
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • The sudden loss of a loved one
  • Intense economic hardship
  • Proximity to explosions
  • Long-term, low-level harassment or bullying

During traumatic events the brain may partially shut down in order to prevent more extensive damage. Similar to a circuit breaker that is designed to protect multiple electrical outlets in a home from a sudden surge of electricity due to a lightning strike, the brain has a type of psychological shutdown that helps a person survive stressful situations.

The problem is that unless those emotional circuits are reactivated and the pent-up emotions are processed thoroughly, they tend to stay in the person’s brain in a sort of locked-down situation.

This can result in any of the following ongoing symptoms:

  • Panic attacks
  • Intense stress triggers
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Self-injury
  • Thrill-seeking behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression

In some cases, these symptoms present themselves shortly after the trauma. In others, they may not be noticeable for years.

Substance Abuse as Self-Medication for PTSD

It is extremely common for individuals struggling with PTSD to self-medicate with alcohol or other chemicals. When high levels of alcohol are consumed, the brain releases a naturally occurring chemical called dopamine. This washes over specialized receptors in the brain and relieves underlying psychological distress for a short time.

The symptoms always return, however, and often they return even stronger than they were before the self-medication. The body develops a tolerance to alcohol very quickly. This means that the affected person will need larger and more frequent doses of alcohol in order to feel the desired effect.

Between the brain’s need for emotional relief and the individual’s increasing tolerance to alcohol, addiction can develop very quickly. As many as 80 percent of alcoholics suffer from at least one underlying or co-occurring psychological disorder, such as PTSD or depression.

Treating Alcohol Dependency and PTSD

The most successful PTSD and alcoholism recovery programs integrate their patients’ treatment for all physical and emotional conditions into one holistic therapeutic regimen. These often include the following components:

  • Various types of personal counseling
  • Classes to educate patients on their disease and how to manage it
  • Coping skill development
  • Relaxation exercises, such as meditation, yoga and prayer
  • Arts therapy
  • Medical care
  • Support group experiences

Over time, these programs help patients to re-program their brains back to their pre-trauma health. Alcohol is not a long-term solution for PTSD even if it seems to “take the edge off” for a time. The underlying problems only get worse. Eventually, an alcoholic suffering from PTSD will not be able to get drunk enough to feel any relief. Overdose and suicide are very real risks if these conditions are not treated carefully and comprehensively.