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Is There a Link Between PTSD and Alcoholism?

ptsd and alcoholism

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and alcoholism are two complex conditions that are often linked, creating a vicious cycle where the PTSD and alcoholism feed on each other. Exploring the link between PTSD and alcoholism can shed light on the complexities of the two disorders, underscoring the importance of a comprehensive treatment approach toward both.

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Such events may include

  • Exposure to combat
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Natural disasters
  • Accidents

PTSD manifests through a range of symptoms that persist beyond the traumatic event. These symptoms include intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, hypervigilance, and the avoidance of triggers associated with the trauma. Such symptoms can significantly impair daily functioning and quality of life. PTSD affects individuals differently, and the severity of symptoms can vary over time.

Treatment of PTSD typically involves psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), medications, or some combination of the two. Early intervention and support are crucial for managing PTSD.

How PTSD and Alcoholism Co-Occur

While both PTSD and alcoholism can manifest on their own, their happening at the same time—known in medical circles as “co-occurrence” or “comorbidity”—is common in the U.S. However, for as common as it is, the co-occurrence is enduring and complex, involving psychological, physiological, and cultural factors.

“For more than 40 years, research has shown that individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) use alcohol and experience Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) to a greater degree than those with no PTSD,” said a 2018 study The Epidemiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Use Disorder, published by the National Library of Medicine,. “AUD and PTSD have shown a durable comorbidity that has extended through decades and through changes in disorder definitions.”

Strange as it may seem, the link between PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) goes both ways. Having PTSD increases the risk of developing an AUD, while having an AUD often puts one at risk for traumatic events that could lead to PTSD. Moreover, the co-occurrence of PTSD and AUD can start with either issue.

PTSD and Alcoholism Among Veterans

PTSD typically arises from exposure to traumatic events, and very little is more traumatic than an intense or extended combat situation.

Estimates of the prevalence of PTSD among returning service members vary widely across wars and eras. One major study of 60,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that nearly 14 percent of deployed and nondeployed veterans screened positive for PTSD. Other studies show the rate to be as high as 20 percent or even 30 percent. As many as 500,000 U.S. troops who served in these wars were diagnosed with PTSD.

Too often, alcohol abuse becomes a coping mechanism for veterans living with PTSD or some other mental health disorder. Nearly 23 percent of male veterans have reported participating in binge drinking, or consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in under two hours. Meanwhile, fourteen percent of female veterans have binged, consuming four alcoholic drinks in two hours.

Contributing Factors in the Link Between PTSD and Alcoholism

Research suggests that several factors can contribute to the co-occurrence of PTSD and alcoholism. These include:


Research suggests that people living with PTSD may use alcohol as a means of alleviating their PTSD symptoms. After all, alcohol’s sedative effects can dampen the anxiety and hyperarousal associated with PTSD. However, this relief is only temporary and is often followed by a growing dependence on alcohol to cope.

Biological Factors

Biological factors also contribute to the link between PTSD and alcoholism. Chronic stress associated with PTSD alters brain chemistry, particularly neurotransmitter systems involved in mood regulation and reward processing. This dysregulation can predispose people to seek out substances like alcohol for their mood-altering effects. Meanwhile, genetic predispositions to both PTSD and alcoholism can overlap, increasing the likelihood of their co-occurring.

Trauma Triggers and Cravings

Trauma-related cues can trigger the intense cravings for alcohol in some people diagnosed with PTSD. These triggers may include situations, places, or people reminiscent of the traumatic event.

Seeking relief from their distress, people with PTSD may turn to alcohol, perpetuating a cycle of avoidance and dependence. Over an extended period, this pattern of avoidance-dependence can exacerbate both the PTSD symptoms and the alcohol abuse.

Social Context and Coping Strategies

Social factors also play a significant role in the link between PTSD and alcoholism. People with PTSD have been known to struggle with interpersonal relationships and the prospect of reintegrating into society.

Alcohol, being a famous social lubricant, can ease social interactions and provide one with a sense of belonging. Reliance on alcohol, however, to navigate social situations can deepen dependence, again exacerbating the cycle of PTSD symptoms and substance use.

Treating PTSD and Alcoholism

Treating co-occurring PTSD and alcoholism poses unique challenges due to the complex interplay between these disorders. Addressing one without considering the other usually has mixed results. Integrated treatment approaches that simultaneously target the client’s PTSD symptoms and their alcohol abuse have shown great promise in breaking this vicious comorbidity cycle.

Dual diagnosis is the medical term for when a person has been diagnosed with both a substance use disorder, such as AUD, and a mental health disorder, such as PTSD. While dual diagnosis of PTSD and alcoholism is common, identifying a dual diagnosis can be difficult. Some common co-occurring mental health disorders that occur with substance use disorders include:

The first step in treating dual diagnosis is to have the patient enter a detox program for their alcohol use. Medication-assisted treatment, also known as MAT, uses prescription drugs to treat a person’s withdrawal symptoms during detox.

Once detox is completed, treatment for both the AUD and PTSD can begin. Treatment for dual diagnosis consists of different types of therapies, including like individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. Individual or “talk” therapy can help a person understand their addiction and mental health issues.

Northpoint Recovery also utilizes holistic therapies to round out a person’s dual diagnosis treatment. Holistic therapy includes activities like yoga, acupuncture, and art therapy to encourage a sense of peace and focus. This approach has proven helpful in helping both veterans and civilians engage more deeply in their recovery and avoid relapse.

Find Help for PTSD and Alcoholism Today with Northpoint Recovery

Want to know more about how our compassionate, individualized addiction and mental health treatment? Want to know how we can help you or a loved one? Call Northpoint Recovery today at 208.741.6168 or contact us online. Our medical professionals understand the benefits of dual diagnosis treatment inside and out. Help us help you in your recovery journey today.