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Alcohol and PTSD: The Link and Finding Help

Alcohol and PTSD: The Link and Finding Help

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that develops after experiencing a traumatic event. It can lead to or be worsened by alcohol misuse.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a sneaky condition. Events that are traumatic for one person may have little to no effect on another. Once you experience the crippling anxiety and fear that accompany PTSD, you may feel helpless or out of control. And you also may have no idea that your symptoms are connected to a trauma that happened several months or years ago. It is important to understand how PTSD develops, how it can lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD), and what you can do to overcome it.

At Confidant Health, we understand that trauma can be life-changing in the worst way. Self-medicating with alcohol can sometimes feel like the only way to numb your symptoms. But it doesn't have to be that way. Our medication-assisted treatment for alcohol use can help you heal from AUD and PTSD together. You'll receive one-on-one help from a recovery coach and a customized treatment plan consisting of medication and therapy. To learn more about our virtual dual diagnosis treatment for alcohol use disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, schedule an online assessment today.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a condition in which a person undergoes significant psychological distress after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or series of events. Some examples of traumatic events that can lead to PTSD are:

  • War
  • Serious accidents
  • Childhood abuse
  • Domestic abuse
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Sexual or physical assault

Trauma is fairly common, with 60% of men and 50% of women going through at least one traumatic experience at some point in their lives. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops post-traumatic stress disorder afterward. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 6% of Americans will experience post-traumatic stress disorder during their lifetime. And according to the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS), as many as one in three people will develop this condition after a severely traumatic event. 

Symptoms of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder often takes time to develop after you have been involved in or witnessed a traumatic event. For most people, symptoms start to crop up approximately three months after the event. However, even if you haven't experienced PTSD symptoms by the three-month mark, that does not mean the event will not lead to PTSD down the road.

Some people don't start to notice signs of PTSD until years after a traumatic event, but by then, they don't often put the two together. This can make it more challenging to get a correct diagnosis and treatment. If you have experienced trauma, be mindful of the following symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


You may avoid people, places, or things that remind you of the event. 


You might find it hard to stop thinking about what happened. The event may even infiltrate your dreams or cause nightmares.


You might live in a constant state of anxiety and fearfulness, worrying that you are unsafe or that the event or something similar could happen again. It can be difficult to relax or let your guard down, and you may be easily startled.


You may find yourself in a persistent low mood and unable to feel positive or hopeful for the future. Activities you once enjoyed may no longer interest you. You might even start to have a negative view of your life and the world as a whole.


It can be difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Your mind may keep bringing up the traumatic event, so you cannot relax enough to drift off. Or, you may be awakened by nightmares and struggle to fall back asleep.

What Triggers PTSD?

Many people experience or witness traumatic events without developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Although two people can experience the same event together, one may develop PTSD while the other moves on without any issues. Why is this?

There are certain factors that can make a person more likely to develop PTSD. Some potential triggers for PTSD include:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Excessive stress after a traumatic event
  • Existing mental health disorders like anxiety or depression
  • Family history of mental health disorders
  • Lack of emotional support after a traumatic event

And some people are more likely to experience specific types of traumatic events. For example, men have a higher chance of:

  • Accidents
  • Combat
  • Physical assault
  • Witnessing death or injuries

On the other hand, women may be more susceptible to experiencing trauma related to:

Some triggers are already present prior to a traumatic event, so you can help prevent PTSD by seeking proper treatment for your mental health. You can also reduce the chances of developing PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event by talking with a therapist and reaching out to loved ones for support.

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Who Develops PTSD?

Anyone who experiences a traumatic event can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some people are more vulnerable to PTSD due to the nature of their work or life circumstances. Some factors that impact who develops PTSD are:


Although men are more likely than women to experience at least one trauma in their lifetime, women have double the risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event. 


Danish and Nordic studies showed that women were most susceptible to PTSD in their early 50s, while men were most vulnerable to the condition in their early 40s.

Type of Trauma Experienced

People who experience sexual assault or abuse make up the majority—approximately 33%—of cases of people with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Military Service

The lifetime prevalence of a civilian woman developing PTSD is 8%, while female veterans have a 13.4% prevalence. For civilian men, there is a 4.1% chance of PTSD, whereas male veterans experience a 7.7% likelihood.


Certain jobs put you in situations where you are more likely to encounter a traumatic event. In addition to military service, you are more likely to experience a trauma that can cause PTSD if you are a police officer, firefighter, healthcare professional, ambulance personnel, or journalist. 

The Link Between PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder

There is a strong relationship between PTSD and alcohol use disorder. A person with PTSD is more likely to misuse alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. And alcohol misuse can make a person more likely to be involved in a traumatic event that can lead to PTSD, such as car accidents or serious injuries.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic condition where a person cannot moderate their alcohol consumption or quit drinking despite experiencing adverse effects, such as health, financial, or legal problems. A person struggling with AUD may develop a tolerance to alcohol and require larger amounts to achieve the same effects. They may also experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking, including nausea, vomiting, sweating, rapid heart rate, and tremors.

PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder Statistics

Post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol misuse often go hand in hand. To protect your physical and mental health, it is important to understand how PTSD and AUD are so closely related. Alcohol misuse, such as binge drinking and heavy drinking, will make a person much more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Binge drinking refers to five or more drinks on an occasion for men and four or more for women. Heavy or excessive drinking is considered 15 or more drinks per week for men and eight or more for women.

Trauma and PTSD increase the risk of alcohol use disorder.

About one-third of people who experience trauma misuse alcohol, and as many as 75% of people engage in alcohol misuse after severe or violent trauma. This is the case whether or not the person develops PTSD as a result of trauma.

Chronic health issues make you more likely to self-medicate with alcohol after trauma.

Adding a traumatic experience on top of untreated chronic health problems or pain can make it more tempting to use alcohol as a coping mechanism. 

Women with PTSD are more susceptible to alcohol use disorder than men.

Women with PTSD are 2.5 times more likely to struggle with alcohol misuse, while men with this condition are two times more likely to engage in problematic drinking behaviors.

War veterans with PTSD are at a higher risk of developing alcohol use disorder.

War veterans are more likely to engage in binge drinking, which increases the risk of alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder. Out of all the Vietnam veterans who sought treatment for PTSD, 60% to 80% struggled with alcohol misuse. 

Risks and Dangers of Alcohol Use While Coping with PTSD

When people do not receive the appropriate treatment for PTSD, they are more likely to turn to alcohol to manage their symptoms. Drinking alcohol with undiagnosed or untreated post-traumatic stress disorder can make things worse. They may initially feel better when drinking since alcohol's CNS-depressing effects will help them feel calmer and more relaxed. But these benefits are only fleeting, and alcohol will eventually exacerbate PTSD symptoms. 

Some of the risks and dangers of drinking alcohol when you have PTSD are a worsening of:

  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Anxiety 
  • Irritability
  • Edginess
  • Emotional numbness
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares

In addition to exacerbating PTSD symptoms, drinking alcohol with this condition can make you more likely to develop physical health problems and alcohol use disorder.

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PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder FAQs

What does alcohol do to someone with PTSD?

A person using alcohol to self-medicate PTSD may initially feel relief from their symptoms since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Drinking can make you feel calmer and more relaxed, as it alleviates the anxiety and nervousness resulting from PTSD. However, the relief is only temporary, and a person who self-medicates with alcohol can exacerbate their PTSD symptoms over time. 

Can PTSD cause alcohol use disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to alcohol use disorder since many people use alcohol or other substances to cope with their symptoms. If you do not seek proper treatment for PTSD, you are more vulnerable to unhealthy coping strategies like alcohol misuse. 

What are the three symptom clusters of PTSD?

The three symptom clusters of PTSD are: re-experiencing the traumatic events, emotional numbness and avoidance of anything associated with the event, and hyperarousal.

How does a person with PTSD act?

A person with post-traumatic stress disorder has a nervous system on high alert, causing them to live in a chronic state of anxiety, fear, nervousness, and agitation. They may appear to be on edge or are easily startled by sounds. They might also come across as irritable and get upset over seemingly minor issues. 

Does alcohol make PTSD worse?

Alcohol can make PTSD worse, just as PTSD can instigate alcohol misuse. If you have PTSD, you should avoid or limit alcohol consumption. If you already struggle with alcohol dependence, you should address that with your provider when seeking PTSD treatment.

How are you tested for PTSD?

To receive a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, your provider will check that you meet certain criteria, such as:

  • One or more avoidance symptoms, like avoiding certain locations
  • One or more re-experiencing symptoms, like flashbacks
  • Two or more arousal and reactivity symptoms, like being easily startled
  • Two more cognition and mood symptoms, like unwarranted feelings of guilt

If you’ve dealt with all of the above symptoms for over a month and they significantly disrupt your daily life, your provider will likely diagnose you with PTSD.

PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis treatment is designed to address co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, which has been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans. When you have an alcohol use disorder and a mental health condition like PTSD, it is referred to as having a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. It is important that you treat both conditions together for the best possible outcome. 

Treatment and Medication for PTSD and AUD

Managing post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol use disorder simultaneously requires a comprehensive treatment approach. This includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy that can be complemented by support groups and holistic therapies like mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises. 

Medications that may be used for PTSD and AUD include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Acamprosate
  • Disulfiram
  • Naltrexone

These medications can address PTSD symptoms like anxiety and depression and decrease cravings for alcohol. 

While medication can be immensely helpful for managing physical and emotional discomfort associated with PTSD and AUD, it is not enough to achieve long-term recovery. Therapy helps get to the root of these co-occurring conditions to reduce the risk of relapse. Cognitive-behavioral therapies such as cognitive restructuring and exposure therapy teach you how to modify negative thoughts and desensitize yourself to PTSD triggers. 

Find Relief from PTSD and Alcohol Use Disorder at Confidant Health

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be paralyzing enough on its own. But when you add alcohol use disorder to the mix, you may feel like you're in a downward spiral you can't stop. Confidant Health is here to provide the convenient online support you need to recover from PTSD and AUD. Get started with medication-assisted treatment for alcohol use by downloading our app today.

This article has been medically reviewed by
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Nurse Practitioner

Erin is a Nurse Practitioner with 8 years of experience in midwifery and women's health. She has spent the past 5 years specializing in the treatment of opioid and alcohol use disorders.

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