PTSD and Alcohol Abuse: How Addiction Affects Veterans

Men and women who serve in the military face unique challenges that impact their mental and physical health. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, may happen in response to violent events that occur while on active duty. Additionally, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder can develop alcohol abuse at the same time, leading to a situation called a dual diagnosis. Finding the right treatment program for veterans struggling with co-occurring disorders can be challenging because of this mix of mental health concerns. 

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder is more commonly known as PTSD. This mental health condition arises following exposure to a traumatic event. Sometimes, witnessing a violent and disturbing event can trigger PTSD and other mental health problems. Military life, which may include combat situations, stressful training expeditions, and deployment to high-risk locations, increases the risk for PTSD. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 11-20% of veterans in any given year experience PTSD symptoms. In comparison, PTSD occurs in 6% of the general population. The nature of military work increases the likelihood that veterans will experience trauma, making PTSD much more common in veterans. 

What are the Symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD can be debilitating. A few common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through distressing thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks about the traumatic event. 
  • Persistent negative thoughts about self or the outside world. 
  • Inability to remember details about the event. 
  • Avoidance of people and places that remind of the event. 
  • Self-blame or negative beliefs. 
  • Irritability or aggressiveness.
  • Hypervigilance, easily startled.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Ongoing feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, hopelessness, or guilt. 

Although most symptoms of PTSD emerge within the first three months after a traumatic event, some individuals may see symptoms appear much later. And though the symptoms of PTSD may differ from person to person, PTSD symptoms often adversely impact a person’s daily life. PTSD can compromise personal relationships, work performance, and self-esteem. Furthermore, individuals may attempt to manage PTSD symptoms through substance use, raising the risk for a dual-diagnosis disorder involving alcohol or other substances. 

Can PTSD Increase Dependency on Alcohol?

Experiencing trauma increases the risk of alcohol problems and other substance use disorders. Information from the Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD  shows that approximately 75% of abuse or violent events victims have drinking problems. Due to their line of work, veterans experience violent situations at higher rates than the general population, heightening their risk for co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders. 

For example: 

  • About 2 out of every 10 veterans with PTSD have a co-occurring substance use disorder, like alcohol dependence.  
  • Approximately 1 out of every 10 veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had issues with alcohol or other substance use disorders. 
  • Combat veterans with PTSD tend to binge drink, which means 4 to 5 drinks of alcohol are consumed within a short period. 

The symptoms of PTSD may drive individuals to use alcohol in an attempt to help them relax or manage their emotions. Unfortunately, using alcohol or other substances to deal with PTSD symptoms can worsen these symptoms instead. 

How Does Alcohol Worsen PTSD Symptoms? 

PTSD is a disruptive and distressing illness, which is why people with PTSD may use alcohol to alleviate symptoms (self-medication). However, drinking alcohol exacerbates PTSD symptoms and adds another layer of problems. 

Alcohol may worsen PTSD in the following ways: 

  • Feeling of isolation and numbness can worsen with alcohol use. 
  • Drugs and alcohol may affect a person’s sleep quality, furthering a decline in alertness and concentration. 
  • Alcohol abuse may encourage individuals with PTSD to avoid their symptoms rather than pursue ways to recover. 
  • Using alcohol and other substances makes day-to-day functioning more difficult, which can interfere with relationships and work. 
  • Alcohol abuse or substance use raises the risk for chronic medical conditions and other mental health disorders. 

Alcohol can give a person with PTSD the mistaken belief that their condition is improving. In reality, however, alcohol and other substances create more problems to manage. An alcohol disorder increases the chances of being in dangerous situations, which then opens a person up to additional traumatic events. 

Perhaps even more concerning, alcohol use increases the risk of suicide in people with PTSD. Consuming alcohol reduces impulse control and raises the risk of suicidal thoughts, creating a dangerous situation. 

How are PTSD and Alcohol Abuse Treated? 

Mental health experts recommend treating PTSD and alcohol abuse simultaneously. Treating both illnesses simultaneously increases the chances of a successful recovery. Trauma-focused psychotherapies, also known as talk therapy, offer the best results for treating PTSD and alcohol abuse. 

These treatments include a variety of techniques to help process distressing experiences. One example is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The trauma that causes PTSD can change the way a person thinks and perceives the world. CBT gives individuals with PTSD the skills to manage their symptoms, improve their decision-making, and change negative thinking. 

Medication treatment is another option for the treatment of PTSD and alcohol abuse. Through the appropriate dual-diagnosis medication regimen, individuals with PTSD can alleviate their symptoms and reduce cravings for alcohol and other substances. Incorporation of healthy leisure activities also encourages recovery. Activities that foster relaxation and mindfulness, such as horseback riding and swimming, foster positive coping skills and create new relationships with others. 

Find Help for Addiction with Pacific Palms

Pacific Palms Recovery in Southern California offers dual-diagnosis treatment for PTSD and alcohol in a supportive and caring environment. We offer cutting-edge, evidence-based treatment for alcoholism and drugs at an affordable price. 

Our outpatient treatment programs promote healing using the therapeutic California weather by incorporating dynamic leisure activities and therapies. Whether you choose our 30, 60, or 90-day programs, you’ll receive high-quality treatment catered uniquely to your needs.  

If you or your loved one is a veteran looking for dual diagnosis treatment in Southern California, contact one of our experienced specialists.  Let us help you on the journey toward recovery today.