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How Alcohol Affects Symptoms of PTSD

How Alcohol Affects Symptoms of PTSD

Relationship Between Alcohol and PTSD

It has long been observed by doctors and researchers that there is a correlation between PTSD and alcohol use. Over the last 40 years, research has taken place to understand PTSD and alcoholism and observe the effects of one on the other, if one is either the cause or the result of the other. The results of this research are inconclusive. 

A large portion of the data has been based on veterans due to the concentration of PTSD diagnoses found in that demographic, and some research shows that the chances of developing alcoholism is higher in those who have posttraumatic stress disorder. However, this speaks to the incidence of alcohol being used as a form of self-medication due to its availability and, in some ways, its social acceptance. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse and needs assistance, consider reaching out to a drug detox facility in Costa Mesa for professional help.

Other studies reveal that individuals who suffer from alcoholism have an increased chance of exposure to traumatic experiences and PTSD may develop as a result. 

Further research of each of these hypotheses revealed that there were almost an equal number of cases where PTSD preceded alcohol use as there were that alcohol use facilitated exposure to trauma and the development of PTSD, but only when data from veterans was excluded. 

This adjustment to the testing pool was accepted for two major reasons. First, the variable of how many individuals enter the military that are almost guaranteed to experience a traumatic event did not match the probability that other groups would encounter a trauma. Second, the culture of alcohol and self-medication present in military groups influences those with PTSD to use alcohol to self-medicate. This presented an argument that unbiased data collection could not occur. 

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The Effects of Alcohol on PTSD Symptoms

Alcohol affects people differently, but it is certainly able to exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD. The way alcohol is felt varies from person to person, which is why you hear about people being labeled as a happy drunk or angry drunk. This has to do with the way your body metabolizes alcohol, which is decided by what variation of a certain gene humans possess. In fact, the way people can “handle” their alcohol is heavily determined by a number of genetic factors, which is why it is highly likely that an individual will develop alcoholism if one of their parents suffers from it. 

Symptoms of PTSD present as flashbacks and reexperiencing the event mentally, feeling emotionally numb, blocking out or avoiding cues and reminders of the event, and hyperarousal symptoms such as irritability or aggression, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilance, heightened startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty sleeping.

When you consume alcohol, your faculties and senses are dulled, resulting in having less control over your decisions and emotions. Many people without post traumatic stress become irritable or aggressive when they drink, and risky behavior or poor decision making is a common side effect of intoxication. When individuals with posttraumatic stress feel these effects of alcohol, they are likely to be less in control of the negative emotions they carry with them as a result of their trauma. Those suffering from PTSD who use alcohol have been known to lash out in anger and get into physical fights, even with loved ones while under the influence. 

In some stages of intoxication however, emotions are numbed, and the individual feels unaffected by outside situations or stimuli. For those with PTSD who already present with emotional numbness, this can begin a dangerous cycle of self-neglect and this is often what is happening in individuals with PTSD who engage in binge drinking, attempting to maintain a level of intoxication so they don’t have to acknowledge their feelings or memories.  

Dangers of Long-Term Alcohol Use With PTSD

Our brains go through a series of responses when exposed to intense stimuli. This stems from an ingrained survival instinct designed to protect us and keep us alive in the presence of danger. When an individual experiences a traumatic event, a fear response is triggered and endorphin levels in the brain surge, enabling us to act, respond, and stay safe. 

Typically when we feel lower and more manageable levels of fear, we want to shut down, physically hide and cover ourselves at times to feel a sense of comfort, even break down emotionally from the intense and overwhelming feelings. Our brain’s instinct understands that we can’t do that when we are in immediate danger so it pumps us full of chemicals and hormones that keep us going, and these levels remain elevated for hours, sometimes days. When those endorphins wear off, because we sent out all our stores to trigger the protection response, we actually arrive at a depleted endorphin state. This is when we experience the full impact of emotional distress through physiological symptoms, and we begin to look for ways to ease it. 

Many individuals, without even knowing the science behind it most of the time, understand that alcohol increases endorphin levels in the brain and makes for an easily accessible band aid for endorphin depletion. When we synthetically give our brain these endorphins instead of allowing the area of the brain that produces it to do so naturally, we enter a cycle of endorphin depletion and medicate it with alcohol.

This is something that can happen for a short time to individuals after they experience a traumatic event, resulting in a one time drinking event. If they don’t have PTSD, they’ll recover and allow their brains to regulate and learn to handle the instance of trauma in a healthier way. If they do have PTSD, the symptom that causes those that suffer to re experience the event repeatedly, and have exaggerated fear responses to upsetting yet non-traumatic events, means that that cycle of endorphin depletion and self medicating with alcohol can occur more often. This can turn into full blown alcohol abuse disorder much easier than in non-traumatized individuals.  

Treatment for Alcohol and PTSD

Since discovering the link between PTSD and the increased risk it poses for developing an alcohol use disorder, psychologists and other mental health professionals are trying to get ahead of the problem by introducing coping skills and solutions at the start of treatment for PTSD instead of waiting for a problem with alcohol consumption to form and addressing it then. This is especially true for those who have had a problem with alcohol in the past and are either recovered or it had not yet turned into a severe alcohol use disorder before the trauma was experienced. 

Medical professionals have also continued their study of the relationship between existing alcoholism and the possibility it presents for becoming affected by trauma, and have developed treatment plans and therapies designed to approach mental recovery for both issues simultaneously. There is so much in alcoholism that directly affects PTSD and visa versa that effective treatment has to acknowledge the existence or at least the possibility of both problems manifesting together. The approach to sobriety that works for non-traumatized individuals who suffer from alcoholism may not be effective for the one diagnosed with PTSD. 

Treatment should always start with education, therapy, and, in regards to alcohol, support programs that address drinking problems in a personally acceptable way. Twelve step programs are commonly used and effective but they may not be the best fit for everyone’s personal beliefs. Any PTSD support groups or therapies should have awareness cooccurring PTSD and alcoholism so steps can be taken in the beginning stages of sobriety where many individuals feel that their PTSD symptoms get worse or more noticeable in the first days since they stopped drinking. Going through this without coping skills or being prepared can cause an individual to go through duress as their past trauma compounds the already difficult mental and chemical process of stopping the use of alcohol. 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment for Alcohol and PTSD at Resurgence

Mental health research supports that alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders rarely manifest in an individual without underlying causes. The recent ability for therapists and recovery centers to address both the physical issue of addiction and the cooccurring mental health issues has seen a dramatic increase in the success of those in recovery from alcoholism and substance abuse. 

We at Resurgency Behavioral Health have seen the successful results as well, and we are pleased to support and offer a full continuum of care featuring a wide range of alcohol and drug treatment programs, types of therapies offered, and treatment modalities offered in multiple locations within our network across the US. We also prioritize individualized care, and understand that the needs, goals, and approach required for each person to be successful in their recovery is unique. Our facilities are customized in every way, down to the best location and amenities, and addiction resources for you to immerse yourself in treatment and focus exclusively on your healing. 

Why choose Resurgence? Every aspect of our facilities, from the environment to the people who work here, are designed to set you on the best path to recovery. Some of the many amenities that will be available to you at our network of facilities are: 

Trauma-Informed Care: behavioral health and addiction issues are not a choice, they are manifestations of real pain and suffering that an individual has gone through. It is important to identify and heal past trauma so the transformation you undergo here at Resurgence is lasting and effective. 

Dedicated Staff: many of those you will see and work with at our facility have been where you are and are successfully in recovery. This brings an element of understanding and compassion to your experience so you can experience your treatment with non-judgemental support, and also understand that you have a community with you when you return to life after rehab. 

Customized Treatment Plans: going beyond individualized therapy and the unique approaches needed based on the kind of dual diagnosis you recieve, we also offer life skills classes, vocational training, physical fitness, and life after treatment to address every aspect of you and your life, because mental illness and substance abuse disorder affect every aspect of your life and you. 

Dynamic Therapy Approaches: We offer therapy options to meet every need, and are dedicated to finding the approach that works for you. Our therapists and medical professionals are educated in cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectic behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, EMDR, 12 step recovery, SMART recovery, experiential therapy, PTSD care and Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT)

You deserve to know what life is like after healing and we can help you get there by providing our comprehensive level of support and high-quality treatment programs. We focus on whole-person healing, and we have created a better rehab experience because of this. Our facilities are located across the country and our highly trained and highly dedicated addiction specialists are standing by now, ready to take your call and help you take your next steps. Reach out to Resurgence Behavioral Health today. 

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Individualized treatment programs delivered in a comfortable, relaxed setting promote healing in your recovery journey.

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Alexa Iocco

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