PTSD and Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is a common problem, and so is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The latter may not always be easy to recognize, however, as the symptoms of PTSD are often easy to write off for people who struggle with the issue. Symptoms like anxiety, depression, or phobias may be attributed to other mental health conditions rather than the PTSD that might be causing them.

Many people who struggle with PTSD turn to alcohol in an attempt to cover up these symptoms. If you or a loved one struggle with either PTSD or alcoholism, it’s a good idea to understand each of these conditions. 

Understanding PTSD can help you learn about the risk factors associated with it, including the risk of alcoholism. On the other hand, understanding alcoholism can help you recognize the possibility that you may be using alcohol to cover up the repressed symptoms of a traumatic experience.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, shortened to PTSD, is a condition that affects people who have suffered through a traumatic experience.

Many people are surprised to learn that, in its broadest definition, this applies to most of us. A traumatic experience is one which overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope.

Many of us struggled through traumatic experiences during childhood, whether or not we are aware of it. This is because, as children, our coping mechanisms are not fully developed. This is especially true during our earlier years when we are susceptible to psychological imprinting.

Seemingly simple experiences — such as being neglected by a parent or bullied during school — can leave behind the scars of trauma. As children, we are hardwired to seek the guidance and nurturance of our caregivers. If we do not receive this, we may experience trauma.

Other people have been through more obvious traumatic events. These can include:

  • Being abused, emotionally or physically, by a loved one
  • Surviving or witnessing a violent act
  • Being in a car crash or other accident
  • Trauma from medical practices and diseases
  • Sexual trauma
  • Issues with childbirth such as losing a baby

These experiences do not always lead to PTSD. However, about 1 in 3 people who struggle through experiences like these develop the condition. People who struggle with problems like anxiety and depression are more likely to develop PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

These are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD. Some of these symptoms are rather complex and involve a number of symptoms that may or may not occur in conjunction.


One of the most common problems associated with PTSD can be summarized in the term ‘re-experiencing.’ This describes a number of different things which can happen to cause someone to re-experience their traumatic memory. Some of these things can include:

  • Flashbacks, which are vivid memories or even similar mindstates to those which occurred during the traumatic experience. (For example, someone who was traumatized during a war may feel, hear, or see bombs dropping or guns being fired when a similar sound, such as a backfiring car, occurs).
  • Nightmares related to the traumatic incident.
  • Continuous or repetitive, distressing images or sensations.
  • Physical symptoms like pain, discomfort, nausea, shaking, etc.

Many people who experienced a traumatic situation often find that their experience of the future is colored through the lens of their trauma. They may also find that they are constantly bombarded with thoughts about the experience, asking themselves, for example, what could have caused them to experience such an event.

Avoidance Behaviors

Traumatic situations are extremely difficult to come to terms with. This is why they are considered traumatic. One of the common responses to this type of experience is avoidance.

There are a number of different avoidance behaviors, but they all focus on one thing: drawing attention away from the traumatic experience. Some common behaviors include:

  • Avoiding people, places, or things that are reminiscent of your traumatic experience.
  • Refusal to talk about the traumatic situation, or even of things that remind you of the situation.
  • Suppressing memories or thoughts related to the incident. This can take the form of finding distractions (including alcohol) or spending excessive time working or engaged in hobbies.
  • Emotional numbing, another practice which involves numbing the feelings associated with the traumatic incident (again, this can take the form of alcoholism).
  • Social isolation and withdrawal.
  • Deciding to stop engaging in activities that the person once enjoyed.

One of the most common avoidance behaviors is substance abuse. However, it is not always easy to recognize it as such. This is because people who use substances to avoid certain emotions may seem, on the surface, not to have any emotional problems.

However, if there is a recurring pattern of excessive drinking, this often indicates some sort of underlying issue.

Symptoms of Arousal

People who struggle with PTSD often live their lives in a higher state of physical and mental arousal — commonly referred to as living on edge. This can result in a number of issues which are commonly associated with stress.

  • People with PTSD may have a hard time relaxing.
  • People in a state of hyperarousal are constantly scanning the environment for threats which can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety.
  • People with hyperarousal often struggle with insomnia.
  • It may be difficult for people to concentrate when they are in this state.
  • Hyperarousal can also make someone more susceptible to emotional instability, irritability, and outbursts.

All of these issues can make life, in general, more uncomfortable than it would be otherwise. This can increase someone’s likelihood of drinking alcohol in order to reduce this discomfort.

Mental Health Problems

People who have been through a traumatizing event often develop other mental health problems as a result. These include:

  • Anxiety. People who have experienced trauma may develop any number of anxiety problems. They may develop generalized anxiety which affects them at all 
  • time, or panic disorders that are set off when they are reminded of their trauma.
  • Depression. Depression is a common condition among people who have survived trauma.
  • Phobias. People who have PTSD often develop phobias, or fears, related to their trauma.

All of these problems can adversely affect a person’s life and increase their likelihood of using drugs, such as alcohol, to ease their pain.

Destructive Patterns

People with PTSD may take it upon themselves to behave destructively. This can manifest in a number of ways such as self-harming, using drugs, and abusing alcohol.

About Alcohol Abuse

It’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of alcohol abuse so you can understand the relationship between PTSD and alcoholism.

Many people use the terms alcohol abuse and alcoholism interchangeably. However, the two conditions can occur separately.

Alcoholism refers to either psychological or physical dependence on alcohol. Sometimes, these two separate forms of addiction can occur together.

Physical addiction occurs when someone becomes dependent on alcohol. Their body cannot function without it. Physical addiction is often accompanied by the development of tolerance as well as withdrawal symptoms.

Psychological addiction occurs when someone believes that they need alcohol in order to function. For example, someone who isn’t able to socialize without having a drink may be psychologically dependent.

People with PTSD may develop either type of alcoholism. Many develop both. There are a number of reasons that people with PTSD may decide to start drinking alcohol.

In fact, many of the symptoms of PTSD are also common risk factors for drinking. Here are a few examples.

  • Anxiety. Many people with PTSD develop anxiety. This can negatively affect their day-to-day life and impair their ability to function in society. Anxiety is one of the most common reasons that people start drinking in the first place.
  • Depression. Many people with PTSD will develop depression. Depression is also a common risk factor for alcohol abuse. Alcohol allows people to stifle their negative emotions and focus on social engagement or other activities. This may seem like a good short term solution, however, it is not sustainable.

  • Stress. Stress is another common cause of alcohol abuse. People with PTSD often experience nightmares, flashbacks, and unpleasant feelings that can compound and cause large amounts of stress. Without the proper coping mechanisms, people who struggle with serious stress may turn to alcohol.

  • Phobias. People with PTSD often develop a number of phobias or fears. For example, someone who is physically abused by their father may develop a fear of male authority figures. Should they end up working for a male boss, they may be unable to focus due to their fear. In order to function properly, they may start drinking in order to suppress their fears.

Alcohol, PTSD, and Women

Both men and women are susceptible to both PTSD and alcoholism. However, statistics show that these different demographics may respond to these experiences differently.

Men, for example, are statistically known to experience more traumatic incidents than women. The increased likelihood of facing physical accidents or combat trauma increases their likelihood of developing PTSD.

Women, on the other hand, are 2 times more likely to develop PTSD. Of these women, they are 2.4 times more likely to develop alcoholism because of their condition. Women are also more likely to face emotionally traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse.

Alcoholism itself can also contribute to PTSD. People who drink on a regular basis are more likely to be exposed to dangerous or traumatic situations.

Women who are in relationships with alcoholic men may also be more likely to experience traumatic events. Men are showing to be more likely to commit domestic violence when they are regular drinkers. Statistically, most of this domestic violence is committed against women.

Wartime Trauma and PTSD

One of the most common associations between trauma and PTSD is based on the large number of traumatized war veterans. Soldiers are often exposed to extremely traumatic situations, ranging from injuries to witnessing death to being taken hostage.

Many veterans who return from war develop an alcohol problem. In fact, more than 60% of veterans who returned from. 

One of the reasons for this high incidence of alcoholism is because of the lack of emotional knowledge bestowed upon men from older generations. In the earlier half of the century, it was not common for men to take time to understand their emotions.

When these men returned deeply traumatized from war, they had no outlet for these emotions. Instead, they turned to alcohol to help manage their uncomfortable feelings. Now, it is becoming more socially acceptable for men to discuss their emotions and seek help.

This may reduce the frequency of alcoholism and PTSD.

Managing PTSD and Alcoholism

If you or a loved one are struggling with either PTSD or alcohol abuse, it’s natural to want to overcome these problems. You may think that you will have to treat these issues separately, however, this is not the case.

PTSD, Alcoholism and Rehab

The first thing you want to do is get in touch with a rehab facility. These facilities are designed to help people who struggle with addictions overcome their problems.

You will want to find a rehab facility that specializes in treating co-occurring disorders. This is a term used to describe a situation in which somebody has developed an addiction alongside another mental health condition such as PTSD.

If you find a program like this, you will be able to manage your PTSD at the same time as your addiction. It’s important to note, however, that most rehab programs have a duration of several months. If you have had deeply traumatizing experiences, you may want to spend some extra time working on your PTSD after you have managed your alcoholism.

Managing Alcoholism at Rehab

If you are going to be managing alcoholism at a rehab center, it’s a good idea to have some idea of what to expect.

If you have been drinking for a number of months or years, you will probably be recommended to a detox facility. Many people are unaware that alcohol can cause very serious and potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms. Attempting to stop drinking on your own can be extremely dangerous.

If you are only an occasional drinker, however, you may not need to attend a detox program. In this case, you will be allowed to begin your psychological treatment right away. There are two main ways that you can go about doing this, inpatient rehab and outpatient rehab.

  • Inpatient rehab is a more serious and dedicated type of rehab. During this treatment, you will be committed to the facility for the entirety of the program. You will sleep, eat, and attend all of your meetings in the facility.
    • There are some obvious benefits and drawbacks to this type of treatment. The most obvious benefits are the fact that you will have nothing to focus on besides your recovery. You will also be unable to leave the facility and thus you are entirely unable to drink. If you are concerned about avoiding alcohol while you’re in rehab, you may want to attend an inpatient program.
    • The drawbacks of inpatient rehab include difficulties maintaining relationships, work, and school during your program. You will have to take a leave of absence from any job or program that you are attending. You will also be unable to spend an extended amount of time with your significant other, children, or friends. This can create challenges in your personal relationships.

  • Outpatient rehab is a bit different than inpatient rehab. If you are only an occasional drinker and you are interested in stopping, outpatient rehab may be a better option for you.
  • Some of the advantages of outpatient rehab include the ability to maintain relationships, education, and work life while you were attending the program. However, there is nothing stopping you from continuing to drink while you are attending rehab. If you think that you might not be able to resist the temptation of alcohol during your treatment, you may want to consider inpatient rehab.

When you have decided which sort of treatment seems best for you, you will begin the program. The main component of your program will be therapy aimed to identify and address the conditions underlying the addiction. In this case, this will be PTSD.

Treating PTSD

You may be offered certain medications to help manage some of the symptoms of PTSD. However, the backbone of your treatment will be therapy. There are a number of different approaches that you may take in order to treat both alcoholism and PTSD.

The most common approach, however, is talk therapy. Various forms of behavioral therapy have been developed to help people who struggle with mental health problems and difficult emotions. The purpose of these treatments is to help you become more familiar with the workings of your mind, your emotions, your triggers, and your behaviors.

By developing a deeper understanding of what’s going on in your mind, you are able to develop healthier behavioural responses. Therapists will teach you how to cope with stress, fear, anxiety, and other issues instead of reaching for alcohol.

The exact protocol that you and your therapist follow will depend on your specific experience. For example, someone who was traumatized by an experience during war may require a different type of therapy compared to someone who was sexually abused.

Therapists often begin treating PTSD with a specific type of therapy known as a cognitive behavioural therapy. This form of therapy aims to help people identify negative and unhelpful thought patterns and transmute them into more healthy responses. Two subtypes of cognitive behavioral therapy have proven especially useful for PTSD victims.

  • The first type of therapy is called exposure therapy. The purpose of exposure therapy is to gradually re-introduce people to their traumatic memories in a safe setting. In doing this, therapy aims to help people address their fear in a productive manner rather than repressing it.
  • The second type of therapy is known as a cognitive restructuring. In this form of therapy, patients will be guided through a process that will help them understand the traumatic experience more. This allows them to develop a healthier view of their experience rather than having their experience control their emotions.

There are also some therapeutic treatments that have been specifically designed for people who struggle with both PTSD and alcoholism.

One such treatment is called Seeking Safety. This treatment is designed to attend to more psychological components than CBT alone. Rather than working purely on a cognitive basis, this approach also integrates case management, interpersonal issues, and other factors that can influence PTSD.

Getting Help

If you are interested in seeking help for PTSD or alcoholism, there is no sense in waiting. Seeking help sooner than later could quite literally save your life. And, fortunately, there are many ways that you can do this.

The easiest way to begin the process is to reach out to a rehab company. By connecting with someone who works at the facility, you If you are interested in seeking help for PTSD or alcoholism, and there is no sense in waiting. Seeking help sooner than later could quite literally save your life. And, fortunately, there are many ways that you can do this.

Once you are connected with a therapist and have started the program, you can begin working on your PTSD. This is the first step that you will be taking towards a happy recovery.

Related Posts

You guys care, you really do. This isn’t just a machine.

I feel like I’ve found somebody that was long lost and I’m still finding that person, and it’s a journey that I’m welcoming. I’ve gotten my life back and I’ve gotten my soul back.

Speak to an addiction specialist now

No commitment or obligation. All calls are kept 100% confidential.