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Does My Loved One’s Alcohol Use Make Their PTSD Worse?

A man suffering from PTSD and struggling to avoid using alcohol to cope with symptoms.
Men with PTSD are two times more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse.

Your loved one’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is like their own personal war that never goes away. From physical abuse and emotional neglect to actual war zones and natural disasters like the fires ravaging the west coast right now, your loved one’s PTSD makes them relive their trauma over and over again.

In grappling with the nightmares, flashbacks and panic caused by PTSD, your spouse, parent, sibling or child may have turned to alcohol as a way to cope. While drinking can bring temporary relief, it ultimately makes your loved one’s internal war that much harder to win.

How Trauma Changes the Brain

More than 40 percent of men and women in the United States who struggle with PTSD also meet the criteria for alcohol addiction, according to a national, epidemiological survey. This comorbidity has to do with how trauma actually changes the structure, function and circuitry of the brain.

Based on current PTSD research, symptoms are behavioral displays of stress changes in the brain. Stress affects the hippocampus, amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex, ultimately leading to adjustments to the brain’s stress response.

The hippocampus, for example, is the part of the brain responsible for memory consolidation. However, stress hormones caused by trauma kill cells in the hippocampus, interrupting its ability to pass communication from the body to the mind that the trauma is over. This is what triggers constant reactivity and panic, as the brain doesn’t know the body is out of harm’s way.

While stress hormones slow down the hippocampus, the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for threat identification – ends up working overtime. Stress hormones leave the amygdala on a constant loop, making a trauma survivor look for and perceive threats everywhere they go. Research has even shown that these effects on the amygdala can last for years, even in people without a PTSD diagnosis.

In a study published by the American Psychological Association that examined the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the researchers wanted to know how this traumatic event affected survivors 41 and 48 months later. They found that individuals who were 1.5 miles from the World Trade Center that day had significantly higher activity in the amygdala when viewing fearful faces versus calm faces, showing that traumatic events can still trigger emotional responses years later.

Why Alcohol is Used to Try to Relieve PTSD

Since their brain isn’t getting the memo that it can relax, your loved one is in an exhausting state of paranoia, panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia. This naturally leads them to search for anything that will quickly take the edge off, such as alcohol.

When consumed, alcohol floods the brain with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. When released naturally, dopamine helps us feel pleasure and satisfaction after eating something we like or receiving a gift from a friend. However, unnaturally high levels of dopamine released by alcohol lead to unsustainable euphoria. This relieves your loved one from their psychological stress, but only temporarily. Unfortunately, their PTSD is still there once the high wears off.

Effects of Alcohol on PTSD Symptoms

Alcohol oftentimes makes PTSD symptoms much worse than they were before your loved one started drinking, causing scarier nightmares, more intense flashbacks and stronger panic attacks. Instead of providing your loved one the relief they desperately needed, alcohol prolongs and intensifies their PTSD.

Another problem your loved one may be facing is addiction. Once a tolerance is built, your loved one will require more frequent and larger doses of alcohol in order to continue experiencing temporary relief. If your loved one is abusing alcohol, their addiction can trigger additional trauma that feeds into their current PTSD.

Only a dual diagnosis treatment center specialized in alcohol addiction and PTSD can help your loved one overcome their addiction and find healthy ways to cope with their trauma.

Your Loved One Can Heal from PTSD and Alcohol Addiction at The Raleigh House

PTSD isn’t something your loved one can manage on their own and it isn’t something you can fix for them. To truly help your loved one heal, encourage them to seek treatment at The Raleigh House. We have over 10 years of experience treating alcohol and PTSD co-occurring disorders and helping people find lasting recovery.

Through our east to west approach that combines evidence-based treatments and experiential therapies, we will help your loved one detox from alcohol, face the trauma that’s haunted them and develop healthier coping skills that will allow them to live life without constant fear and panic.

Are you ready to get your loved one the dual diagnosis treatment they need? Contact us today to learn more and find out how to get your loved one started.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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