The co-occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Alcohol Use Disorder is relatively common. PTSD is a mental health disorder that can occur after experiencing a major traumatic event. Such events can include physical violence, sexual assault, combat, natural disasters, accidents, or death.
In many cases, individuals experience such trauma directly. Some others, however, only witness such situations. Also, hearing about someone close experiencing such events can trigger PTSD. Professionals who experience continuous exposure to traumatic events can also suffer from this disorder. Examples of such jobs include paramedics, police officers, and firefighters.
About 50 percent of all U.S adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives, but most do not develop PTSD. This mental illness tends to be more common in females than in males. The response to traumatic events is unique to each person. A specific trauma may be devastating to one person but not an issue to someone else. As a result, people respond differently to trauma.
Unfortunately, heavy alcohol consumption is one way some people try to cope with this disorder. While this is no doubt a poor coping mechanism, it is relatively common.
PTSD and heavy alcohol use do not go together. Drinking can worsen symptoms of PTSD. There is also the risk of drug interactions for individuals on medications.
Symptoms of PTSD
So, how does PTSD present? The common symptoms of this disorder are:
- Recurrent intrusive memories
- Distressing dreams
- Distress when exposed to cues that symbolize the trauma
- Reckless behaviors
- Loss of interest in activities
- Exaggerated startle response
- Poor concentration
- Problems with sleep
- Feeling emotionally numb
What is the Relationship Between PTSD and Alcohol?
Many people who have PTSD develop an addiction to alcohol. Why is this, though?
There are quite a few possibilities for why this relationship exists. One widespread reason some people turn to alcohol is to numb their pain. Some people also talk about drinking alcohol to help with poor sleep.
In addition, self-medication with alcohol for anxiety, mood swings, and depression is rife. Guilt and shame can be an issue after certain traumatic events. These feelings can also lead to an increase in the use of drugs and alcohol.
Some studies suggest that as much as 40 percent of adults in the U.S. who have PTSD also have alcohol use disorder. Sadly, this association can worsen the effects of secondhand drinking.
Males are exposed to more trauma than females. They also consume more alcohol than females. Despite this, females are twice as likely to develop PTSD. This group of females is also more likely to struggle with alcohol than men.
In addition, females are more likely to be victims of trauma, such as sexual abuse. These experiences can be profoundly impactful and may lead to the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism.
PTSD and Alcohol Use in Veterans
Veterans can be deeply impacted by the traumatic experiences they have in combat. Extreme violence, severe injuries, and death make it more likely for them to develop PTSD.
The number of Veterans with PTSD varies by service era:
- Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF): About 11-20% of Veterans who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year.
- Gulf War (Desert Storm): About 12% of Veterans have PTSD in a given year.
- Vietnam War: About 15% of Veterans were diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s. About 30% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.
Even though treatment is available for this condition, many veterans take to heavy alcohol consumption.
Treatment for PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder
When an individual has both a mental illness and a substance use disorder, this is known as a co-occurring disorder. Adequate treatment must consider both conditions.
A comprehensive treatment approach must be taken. The co-occurrence of PTSD and alcohol use disorder would require treatment for both. Medications, behavioral therapy to deal with trauma, support groups, and family support are essential components of treatment.
Medications helpful for PTSD are the same drugs for treating depression and anxiety. Common medications for treating this condition are sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), and Venlafaxine (Effexor). Some other drugs are also helpful in treating this disorder.
Trauma-focused therapies go a long way in resolving the experiences which led to PTSD. Examples include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Prolonged Exposure (PE), and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT).
Alcohol use disorder treatment can occur as an inpatient or outpatient. Medications can be helpful for this process. Utilizing medicines for addiction is known as Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). There are quite a few medications that help with treating alcohol use disorder. Some examples are naltrexone (and Vivitrol), disulfiram (Antabuse), and acamprosate (Campral). There are also quite a few .
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international organization of men and women who have a problem with alcohol. It is the oldest and largest alcohol support group in the world. This group helps people struggling with alcohol support one another.
No one treatment is right for everyone. Discussing options with healthcare professionals is vital.