Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcoholism are debilitating psychiatric conditions that commonly co-occur. Most often, PTSD happens first, and alcohol is used to self-medicate some symptoms of PTSD.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is an anxiety disorder characterized by specific symptoms. The onset of this condition is commonly after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event.

These traumatic events can include (but are not limited to):

  • exposure to combat
  • a serious car accident
  • violent assault
  • natural disasters

PTSD is unfortunately quite common, with a lifetime prevalence of 8–20%. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD symptoms include:

  • re-experiencing the traumatic event (through flashbacks or nightmares)
  • avoiding trauma-associated reminders (including people, places, and situations)
  • negative changes in mood (including social withdrawal)
  • hyper-arousal (as with exaggerated startle)

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a form of brain disease. Affected individuals continue to misuse alcohol despite vocational, social, and health consequences. It is often characterized by an increased tolerance to using, withdrawal symptoms when not using, and greater substance use than intended. 

What this means in layman’s terms is:

  • You need to drink more to get the same effect (or “buzz”) you got when you first started drinking.
  • If you go a few days without drinking, you will become anxious, irritable, sweaty, have trouble sleeping, and, at its worst, have seizures.
  • On days you drink, it is not uncommon to intend on having “a drink,” but you end up having a lot more, like ten.

Having “a few extra drinks” regularly can quickly go from “fun” to an unhealthy lifestyle. Importantly, alcoholism is the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States, responsible for approximately 88,0000 deaths annually. Unsurprisingly, alcoholism is also one of the most common mental health disorders, with a lifetime prevalence rate of 29.1%.

PTSD and Alcoholism

Individuals with both alcoholism and PTSD tend to experience worse impairments than people with either disorder alone. This is because one disorder strengthens the other in a cyclic fashion. Alcohol does immediately relieve the core features of primary PTSD, such as reducing startle, blunting traumatic memories, and reducing nightmares while asleep. However, this relief is only temporary.

Over time, alcoholism will worsen PTSD. Some PTSD symptoms known to worsen due to chronic alcohol consumption include insomnia, social withdrawal, and poor mood, resembling depression. When these PTSD symptoms get worse, alcohol is often used again, but in higher amounts.

If any of this describes you, you are not alone. Many people struggle with alcoholism and PTSD. Additionally, with proper treatment, many have recovered from alcoholism and found healthier ways to manage their PTSD.

Consequences of PTSD and Alcoholism

Emotional pain is unfortunately not the only consequence of having these co-occurring disorders. Individuals with PTSD and alcoholism tend to become angry and socially isolated. The social isolation also often means they lose people they can turn to in times of crisis. It also often leads to them becoming unable to hold a job.

This is why people with PTSD and alcoholism are at elevated risk of experiencing further serious issues. For example, they are at elevated risk for:

  • legal problems
  • homelessness
  • medical problems (including premature death)
  • suicide
  • violence
  • poor quality of life

Breaking the Cycle of PTSD and Alcoholism

Drinking aids in suppressing or avoiding unwanted memories. This can be relieving but only in the short term as it never resolves the problem. Fortunately, therapy can sustain the remission of PTSD symptoms by addressing the root of the problem.

Therapy often provokes symptoms repetitively by confronting trauma memories in a safe environment. This means drinking necessarily delays PTSD recovery through prolonged avoidance and promotes worse outcomes. Of course, this also implies therapy is challenging, and alcohol consumption is comparatively easy. The ease of drinking compared to therapy makes it a much more tempting path, but it is ultimately a destructive one.

Next Steps

The first and perhaps most challenging step is admitting that you can benefit from help. If you are on the fence, know you are not alone. In 2020, about half of the US population with any mental illness received mental health services. No one judges you if you make the call for help.

Additionally, many people with mental health conditions have co-occurring disorders. If you have PTSD and co-occurring alcoholism, there is hope. Our expert team of doctors, therapists, and other treatment professionals is prepared to tailor recovery to suit your needs. Services will be comprehensive and integrated such that you can take control of both your mental health and substance use.

Proper treatment will consist of evidence-based practices. These may include:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram for the treatment of alcoholism. These medications are non-addictive and aid in reducing drinking and preventing relapse. Similarly, there are FDA-approved medications that can bolster PTSD gains in therapy. These include sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), and venlafaxine (Effexor).

Here at Dream Recovery, we offer comprehensive treatments that address co-occurring disorders like PTSD and alcoholism, two conditions that commonly co-occur and cause a host of psychiatric, social, and financial problems. Asking for help can be challenging but may be the best choice you ever make. It is imperative to embark on your journey through treatment if you suspect you may have either or both of these disorders, as symptoms are known to worsen without proper care. Our facility provides individualized care no matter where you are on your journey. It is our goal to ensure you find recovery. You can reach us at (657) 216-7218 today to hear more about our program and how we can help you.

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