The Effects of Alcohol Abuse on PTSD

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a psychological condition where individuals suffer as a result of a traumatic event they have witnessed or experienced.

It affects millions of people around the world., and unfortunately, many of its victims also struggle with alcohol misuse.

According to the NHS, people who suffer from PTSD are prone to take part in destructive behaviours such as alcohol misuse as a way of coping with their symptoms and functioning in everyday life.

The link between PTSD and alcohol misuse is a sad yet consistent pattern. To understand why it occurs, we first need to understand PTSD on its own and how it affects the individual.

Understanding PTSD – what are the symptoms?

PTSD begins with a traumatic event. Whether the individual experiences it or witnesses it first-hand, the distressing nature of what they go through causes them to develop the condition.

Examples of events the individual may have been through include:

  • Traumatic childbirth
  • Experiences of war or violence
  • Being a victim of bullying
  • Being in a vehicle accident
  • Witnessing or being involved in a natural disaster

Mind, the UK mental health charity, identifies that events such as these can have life-long impacts on people. Here are some of the common symptoms that can occur with PTSD:

1. Experiencing flashbacks of the event

Due to the disturbing or violent nature of the event, it is common for sufferers of PTSD to repeatedly relive or see it again in their heads.

Whether it is in the form of sudden intrusive images or recurring nightmares, the individual feels that they are back in that moment, experiencing it again for the first time.

This forces the individual to experience the same feelings of fright and distress. In some cases, they may respond physically by sweating, shaking, or vomiting.

2. Avoiding or hiding from things

The prospect of experiencing the event again via flashbacks or thoughts can cause individuals to avoid certain things that they associate with it.

These are known as triggers, and can include:

  • Sights, sounds, or smells that were present during the event
  • Other people talking about a certain thing or place
  • A location or picture
  • The anniversary of an event

For sufferers of PTSD, these triggers act as constant or frequent reminders of what happened. In response, they may hide or avoid all costs.

This could cause them to skip social events, stay away from certain people, or move to a different place. These actions may also worsen their mental health and isolate them from family and friends.

3. Anxiety or paranoia

The mental and emotional state of an individual can be severely altered after a traumatic event.

Following the panic or fright they experienced, they may have high levels of anxiety in everyday life. This could manifest as being hypervigilant – constantly being alert to avoid further pain or shock – or being easily startled or upset.

The distress of the event might also cause the individual to develop upsetting or harmful beliefs. These may include feeling like the world is out to get them, that they can’t trust the people around them, or that they are at fault for what happened.

The Effects of Alcohol on PTSD

Those who suffer from PTSD often turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for the condition’s relentless symptoms. In fact, many who struggle with substance abuse also meet the criteria for PTSD.

The root of this association stems from the effect alcohol has on the brain and the desire those with PTSD have for that effect.

As a means of reducing the impact of their symptoms, alcohol can become a clear choice for those who suffer, but things can easily get out of hand.

Alcohol can both temporarily relieve and ultimately worsen the symptoms of PTSD. While it can numb them in the first instance, providing individuals with short-term relief, over time it can enhance the severity and frequency of symptoms.

1. The effect of alcohol

When someone drinks alcohol, it releases dopamine in the brain. This pleasure hormone temporarily eases the stressful symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, anxiety, and restlessness.

With these symptoms relieved, the individual will find it easier to go about their everyday life.

They will be more capable of talking to people, going to places, and falling asleep each night.

2. How the brain responds

Our brain functions on something known as the ‘Pleasure Principle’. It is designed to keep us alive, and so will pursue any activity or substance that generates feelings of pleasure.

As a result, the brain will register the positive effect of alcohol and remember how it was achieved. It will then act to reexperience that pleasure, and so instinctually seek out more alcohol.

The individual with PTSD, therefore, will remember the numbing effect that alcohol had on their symptoms, and therefore be inclined to repeat it. They may develop the habit of drinking every day in order to sleep, go to work, or socialise.

3. Becoming dependent

The problem with this pattern of behaviour is that physical dependency develops. This is where the prolonged use of alcohol shifts the individual’s body chemistry in such a way that it becomes essential to its functionality.

This means that, as the body becomes used to the frequent doses of alcohol, it struggles to carry on without it. If alcohol is then not taken, withdrawal symptoms can occur.

People who suffer from PTSD may also experience psychological dependency, which involves them taking the alcohol to feel okay enough to go on with everyday life.

The idea of not taking alcohol may make the individual scared, as they believe their symptoms will come back and prevent them from functioning as normal.

4. The comedown – how hangovers affect PTSD

Alcohol is a depressant and is known to have certain effects on the body and brain. It reduces the depth of sleep and can leave people feeling anxious or depressed when they are hungover.

Unfortunately, these effects can be increasingly impactful for those who suffer from PTSD. Specifically, alcohol can have the effect of exacerbating their symptoms.

Reducing the quality of sleep can lead an individual to have more frequent nightmares, or cause them not to sleep at all.

This return of symptoms, combined with the depressive effects of alcohol, may worsen their mental state, and emphasise their trauma-related anxiety or nervousness.

This can then cause the cycle of dependence to restart, as the effects of being hungover may prompt the individual to take alcohol to achieve its pleasurable effects again.

Without appropriate medical help, this cycle can repeat itself again and again.

Getting the right help

If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD, it is important to seek help as it can be treated.

Multiple methods are available and deciding which is the right one for an individual will depend on their specific circumstances, such as their symptoms and the nature of the traumatic event they experienced.

The NHS says that possible treatments include the prescription of antidepressants, which combat harmful thinking and moods, and psychological therapies. These are designed to highlight the negative behaviours of the individual and work to change them.

For alcohol misuse, possible treatments include group therapy, medicinal prescriptions, and detoxification.

With both PTSD and alcohol misuse, it is important to contact your GP to discuss the details of your situation and potential treatment paths going forward.

If you are suffering from both PTSD and alcohol misuse, it is recommended to seek treatment for both conditions simultaneously. The withdrawal symptoms of alcohol may exacerbate the difficulties of PTSD, and vice versa.

Having medical professionals who are aware of both sides of the problem will be pivotal to effective recovery.