How Alcohol Affects PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a stress and anxiety condition that is caused by exposure to intensely stressful circumstances and experiences such as the following:

  • Natural disasters
  • Violent crimes
  • Domestic Violence
  • Battlefield or military violence
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • The sudden loss of a loved one
  • Intense economic hardship
  • Proximity to explosions
  • Long-term bullying

Shocking or highly stressful events cause immediate and some long-term changes in the human brain. Most people are familiar with the rush of adrenaline we all feel when we experience a shock. When a threat feels life-threatening or goes on for an extended period of time, the brain will begin to prepare for long-term survival.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder have experienced changes in:

  • The amygdala (an emotion-regulation center of the brain)
  • The hippocampus (an area that stores memories)
  • The prefrontal cortex (the logic center of the brain)

People who have undergone traumatic stress may also experience ongoing increases in norepinephrine and cortisol, key stress hormones. All of these effects can create lasting changes, which is exactly what we see when a person has untreated PTSD.1

The good news is that PTSD is treatable, and these brain changes can be reversed. Newer, faster treatments for PTSD are being developed each year, and current treatments have shown that people can find healing through existing treatments.1

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The clinical definition of post-traumatic stress disorder covers four main areas of functioning. These four main symptoms of PTSD include:

  1. Avoidance of things that remind the person of their trauma
  2. Intrusive memories of the trauma that disrupt everyday life
  3. Changes in emotional and physical reactions
  4. An increase in negative thinking and mood2

These changes can result in any of the following ongoing symptoms:

  • Panic attacks
  • Intense stress triggers
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Self-injury
  • Thrill-seeking behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression

In some cases, these symptoms present themselves shortly after the traumatic incident. In others, they may not be noticeable for years after the trauma.

Substance Abuse as Self-Medication for PTSD

Avoiding intrusive or unpleasant memories is a key symptom of PTSD. Therefore, it is extremely common for individuals who struggle with PTSD to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances.

When high levels of alcohol are consumed, the brain releases a naturally-occurring chemical called dopamine. This washes over specialized receptors in the brain and temporarily relieves underlying psychological distress for a short time. After drinking, the symptoms always return, and often they return even stronger than they were before the effort to self-medicate with substances. In some cases, the alcohol actually leads to more traumatic experiences, which creates a disastrous cycle.

The body develops a tolerance to alcohol very quickly. This means that the affected person will need larger and more frequent doses of alcohol in order to feel the desired effect. Between the brain’s need for emotional relief and the individual’s increasing tolerance to alcohol, addiction can develop very quickly.

Approximately 8 million U.S. adults suffer from both a substance addiction and a co-occurring psychological disorder, such as PTSD or depression.

Treating Alcohol Dependency and PTSD

The most successful PTSD and alcoholism recovery programs integrate their patients’ treatment for all physical and emotional conditions into one holistic therapeutic regimen. These often include the following components:

  • Supportive counseling
  • Classes to educate participants about the disease of alcoholism and how to manage it
  • Classes and groups to build coping skills
  • Relaxation exercises, such as meditation or yoga
  • Arts therapy
  • Medical care
  • Group therapy and activities

Over time, these programs help patients to reprogram their brains back to their pre-trauma health. Alcohol is not a long-term solution for PTSD even if it seems to “take the edge off” for a time. The underlying problems only get worse. Eventually, any person who suffers from both alcohol use disorder and PTSD will not be able to get drunk enough to feel any relief. Overdose and suicide are very real risks if these conditions are not treated carefully and comprehensively.

Finding PTSD and Alcoholism Help Today

Call our toll-free helpline, 844-675-1221, for immediate, confidential and free answers to all of your PTSD and alcohol dependency questions. Our staff is available 24 hours a day with access to the best treatment programs for your exact needs. You don’t need to bear this burden alone any longer. Call today.


Bremner, JD. Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2006.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Print.

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