What Explains the Link Between PTSD and Alcohol Problems?

Addiction specialists and mental health professionals know that people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have an unusual tendency to develop problems related to alcohol consumption. Potential explanations for the link between PTSD and these problems include the use of alcohol as a form of self-medication, the presence of personality traits that make drinking more likely and the emotional impact of negative states of mind. In a study published in March/April 2014 in the American Journal on Addictions, researchers from the State University of New York, Buffalo used an examination of young adults to help determine which of these factors most likely accounts for serious alcohol problems in people with PTSD.

The Basics

Post-traumatic stress disorder appears in about 8 percent of men who experience or witness a highly traumatic event; it also appears in about 20 percent of women who experience or witness such an event. Specific events known for their potential to trigger PTSD in some individuals include major accidents, direct or indirect involvement in combat, childhood exposure to physical or sexual abuse, exposure to physical or sexual assaults during adulthood, acts of terrorism and hurricanes or other natural disasters. The four classic symptoms of the disorder include an unwanted mental re-experiencing or reliving of a traumatic situation, a desire to escape all reminders of a traumatic situation, a significant increase in negative emotional states and an ongoing inability to fully turn of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response.

PTSD and Alcohol Problems

Problematic alcohol use is any pattern of alcohol intake that puts a person at risk for developing a diagnosable case of alcohol use disorder (i.e., alcohol abuse or alcoholism), or supports ongoing cases of the disorder in affected individuals. There are a number of links between post-traumatic stress disorder and involvement in such a pattern of alcohol use, the National Center for PTSD reports. For example, the presence of PTSD directly boosts the chances that any given person will consume too much alcohol, and PTSD-affected people develop alcohol-related problems more often than their socioeconomic peers not affected by the disorder. In addition, a person with PTSD is unusually likely to have a history of alcohol-related issues that began before he or she experienced the event that initially triggered a post-traumatic reaction. Generally speaking, PTSD sufferers who experience sexual abuse, physical abuse or other acts of violence have the highest chances of developing potentially dangerous drinking behaviors.

What Explains the Link?

In the study published in the American Journal on Addictions, the SUNY Buffalo researchers used an examination of 659 young adults enrolled in college to explore the underlying reasons for the connection between PTSD and involvement in problematic alcohol use. Information was gathered from these participants at the beginning of their college careers, as well as one year later at the beginning of their sophomore year. The researchers used this information to help determine which of three possible theories best explains problematic drinking in PTSD sufferers: the desire to self-medicate unpleasant PTSD symptoms, personality traits that reduce the ability to control alcohol-consuming behaviors or an unusual inclination to experience strongly “down” or negative feelings or emotions. After completing their assessment of the submitted information and conducting a statistical analysis, the researchers concluded that the single factor most likely to explain the link between PTSD symptoms and problematic alcohol consumption is an inability to fully control one’s behavior. They also concluded that there is some evidence to support the impact of negative emotional states and a desire to self-medicate as underlying explanations for the link. However, the evidence does not provide as clear a case for the influence of these factors.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in the American Journal on Addictions believe that their work identifies a personality trait that reduces behavioral control as a key potential factor in determining the high rate of alcohol-related problems in people affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. In line with this finding, they note that treatments that help PTSD-affected individuals overcome the influence of this trait may prove especially useful for doctors who have patients simultaneously impacted by PTSD and problematic drinking. The National Center for PTSD specifically notes that excessive alcohol intake can substantially worsen the effects of PTSD, both during active consumption and after active consumption comes to an end.

Scroll to Top