Why Do Women with PTSD Turn to Alcohol to Cope?

There is a powerful connection that exists between trauma victims who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol abuse.  Many women who develop PTSD, turn to alcohol to cope with its symptoms.  While this type of self-medicating often works – at least temporarily – to quiet the woman’s feelings and memories, it can ultimately lead to addiction, and that can be a recipe for disaster.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is broadly defined as, “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Perhaps this definition is intentionally vague because trauma is such a personal and subjective issue.  Two women who experience the same disturbing experience may react in completely different ways.  Trauma is really defined by the individual; it’s what her internal beliefs and sensitivity to stress dictate, not what a friend, family member or doctor diagnoses.

Traumatic experiences can include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect as well as other frightening events like military combat, accidents, bullying, natural disasters, or any life-threatening incident, whether experienced personally or witnessed.  Trauma can also occur because of childhood issues such as growing up in an alcoholic or drug-addicted home.  This trauma may cause the victim to develop PTSD.

The symptoms of PTSD in women include feelings of extreme fear, helplessness, and hopelessness.  The woman suffering may struggle with anxiety and depression, flashbacks and nightmares of the trauma, and avoidance issues.  It is no wonder that many trauma survivors resort to using alcohol to cope.

PTSD Turn to Alcohol to Cope

The Relationship Between PTSD and Addiction

Research shows that there is a strong link between PTSD and addiction.  In fact, it’s estimated that over half of people who seek help for addiction have been victims of some type of trauma.  But the PTSD-addiction relationship is not a one-way street.  It is a cycle that perpetuates itself unless proper treatment is sought and received.

PTSD is a Risk Factor for Addiction

PTSD can have a disruptive effect on a woman’s daily life, making relationships, work, and school difficult.  It can cause much more than depression and anxiety.  A woman with PTSD may have flashbacks and nightmares of the event, panic attacks, negative memories, and problems sleeping.  Because women who have been traumatized often attempt self-medication to help manage the distress associated with the symptoms of PTSD, they are at risk of developing a drinking problem which may lead to addiction.  They turn to alcohol to numb themselves from the flood of emotions and reminders associated with their trauma, to quell the relieving symptoms, or to be able to sleep.

Addiction is a Risk Factor for PTSD

PTSD being a risk factor for addiction may seem logical because the desire to shut off the negative symptoms is so strong.  However, the opposite is also true.  Addiction can be a risk factor for developing PTSD, as well.  Women with substance abuse issues are more likely to engage in risky behaviors (driving while using drugs or alcohol, frequenting unseemly places with sketchy people, promiscuity, fighting, or other dangerous behaviors) which increases the likelihood of experiencing traumatic events, including harm to themselves or witnessing harm to others.

Regardless of which comes first, the PTSD or the addiction, women who suffer from both experience behavioral and emotional difficulties, and that makes it much harder for them to stop using alcohol.  So, a successful treatment approach must tackle this dangerous cycle.

Recovery for Dual-Diagnosis

When PTSD and addiction are at play together, what began as one problem becomes increasingly complicated by a second serious problem.  The strategy that was being used to cope will itself become so disruptive that treatment is needed.

Whether you are a PTSD sufferer who began using alcohol to cope and developed an addiction, or an alcoholic who suffered trauma as a result, it is important for you to find treatment that addresses both issues.

In the past, it was thought that each condition had to be treated independently of the other, and they would be addressed at separate facilities.  Treatment for PTSD in women was handled by mental health professionals, while alcoholics were sent to rehab.  It is now recognized that not only is it possible to treat both conditions concurrently, it is better for the patient to do so.

Many treatment facilities are now equipped to handle dual diagnosis patients; they treat many mental health issues while also addressing the addiction.  Comprehensive treatment for both mental health and addiction issues is needed to lessen the chances of relapse.  Without it, relapse rates are very high.  Strategies for relapse prevention for a PTSD sufferer will include learning coping skills for managing the psychological and emotional triggers for alcohol use.

If you are struggling with alcohol addiction and have PTSD, please seek help and get started with treatment for both.  The road to recovery is right in front of you, all you have to do is take the first step.

Charles A William