Why Drinking Is A Trauma Response, And How To Cope Without Alcohol

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This article references possible sources of trauma and may lead to your identifying with these triggers. Our trauma informed therapists are ready to support you in addressing these fully to reduce long term emotional distress.

Many of us hold traumatic memories. Through no fault of our own, we may have experienced physical or sexual abuse, or emotional abuse or neglect. We may have been raised by a parent struggling with alcohol dependence, or may have been exposed to other forms of trauma. We may not realize it, but undergoing trauma can cause long term changes in our neurobiology. It can affect the way we react to situations, how our brain and body process information, and how likely we are to crave alcohol. It’s important to first understand the effects of trauma and how we can work through painful experiences. These are powerful steps towards changing our relationship with alcohol, and discovering ways to heal.

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

When faced with traumatic situations, the “fight or flight” glands in our brain (otherwise known as the hypothalamus and the amygdala) trigger a natural and protective response. The amygdala produces more adrenaline, and the hypothalamus gland increases heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and muscle tension. When faced with future stressful situations, the brain is more likely to trigger an intense fight-or-flight response. This is because after being subjected to a traumatic event, we become more likely to perceive and react to new stressors in the same way. 

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Painful memories and biochemical changes resulting from trauma can make us more susceptible to alcohol misuse. As a result, a dual diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) can often occur. While this response to trauma is completely natural and valid, we each still hold a great capacity to cultivate new ways of coping.

Why we may seek alcohol to cope with trauma 

Traumatic experiences can change the neurobiological patterns of the brain. It can lead to a long-term increase in stress hormones, which is why survivors often experience heightened anxiety and depression. Trauma can also cause a decreased level of dopamine in the brain, which is commonly referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.

For someone who has survived a traumatic experience, with or without a PTSD diagnosis, drinking alcohol can provide a temporary relief from these feelings. When drinking, dopamine levels increase in the brain, and we feel better — for a short while.

Additionally, the brain releases dopamine when we experience pleasure, and this reward-center of the brain is especially sensitive to alcohol. Trauma survivors are also more likely to have a stronger reaction to dopamine. As we continue to use alcohol to cope, the brain gets conditioned to using alcohol for relief. Over time, the amygdala and the hypothalamus begin to actually recognize alcohol as a necessary means of survival, and crave alcohol to soothe difficult feelings that arise from traumatic stress. This can lead to alcohol dependency, and is an indicator of alcohol use disorder. 

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PTSD and Alcohol: How do PTSD and Alcohol Relate?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and PTSD are common co-occurring conditions. According to the National Institute of Health, as many as 40% of those diagnosed with PTSD also meet the criteria for AUD. Fortunately a dual diagnosis of AUD and PTSD is treatable with evidence-based medical care, and with support, we can find new, meaningful ways to cope and live full and joyful lives. It’s important to remember that alcohol use disorder (AUD) and post-traumatic stress disorder are medical conditions, and we are not to blame for how our past experiences have affected us.

What is PTSD?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the onset of PTSD is triggered by a traumatic event followed by a set of symptoms that are usually identified in these 4 categories: intrusive memories, avoidance behaviors, negative mood and thinking, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. The severity of these symptoms varies in each person and can be lessened with treatment.

Who is affected by PTSD?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 3.5 million people will experience PTSD each year, and women are twice as likely to experience PTSD in their lifetime. Sexual assault victims and veterans are also more likely to experience PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7% of the population suffers from PTSD sometime in their lifetime.

Why are PTSD and AUD connected?

Alcohol can provide temporary relief to the areas of the brain that are often hyper-vigilant and overactive after enduring trauma. After long-term excessive drinking, the hippocampus and amygdala start to associate alcohol as a requirement to be safe from danger. Because of this, PTSD survivors can subconsciously believe they need it to survive. Alcohol may relieve symptoms temporarily, but ultimately it can heighten anxiety, depression, and bring on other harmful side effects. However, we each have an amazing capability to heal. With the right support and treatment, the trauma-impacted areas in our brain can recover, we can relearn associations of safety, and we can begin to experience real relief from both PTSD and AUD.

Moderation in the time of Coronavirus

The global pandemic is affecting our behaviors in many ways, including our alcohol consumption. Join the discussion about assessing your own drinking behaviors and creating healthier habits through moderation.
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Why Shame Arises, And How To Overcome It  

The brain naturally blames itself for experiences that are out of its control. Although we are never to blame for undergoing trauma, feelings of shame and guilt can still arise. These reactions can be difficult to manage on our own, especially amongst the other painful effects of trauma. Therefore, it is completely understandable that we would use drinking to get some relief from all of these feelings.

Understanding that trauma affects our brain, and can generate a craving out of our control, may help release some of those feelings of shame around alcohol use. Drinking can work to soothe pain at first, but eventually creates a harmful, unhealthy cycle that causes us to drink even more, without relieving underlying stressors or PTSD symptoms. At Monument, we’re here to help you find new ways of managing painful emotions and memories, free of any judgement or shame.

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What Recovery Looks Like 

You can change your relationship with alcohol and simultaneously heal from trauma. The first step is to recognize that despite the signals in our brain’s reward center, alcohol use is not a sustainable coping mechanism. Acknowledge that a previous traumatic event may have changed the way we react to stress, and made us more likely to seek alcohol for relief. These situations happened to us, but do not define us. We also have to remind ourselves that drinking alcohol is a temporary habit, not a reflection of our character. You are not alone in navigating your past trauma, and the relationship between PTSD and alcohol use. There’s professional care and a compassionate community to provide you safe and loving support. 

How to Approach AUD, Trauma, and PTSD Treatment

Therapy

One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is gaining clarity with the support of a therapist. Previous traumatic experiences become stored in the subconscious of the brain as memories and images. These memories are often avoided so that we can function in the present without the weight of the past. A trained mental health professional can help us process these memories so that they no longer have power over us. Through treatment, therapy can also help us regulate stressful emotions, restructure thought patterns, and develop new coping mechanisms in place of past alcohol use. Monument offers personalized therapy programs that are specifically tailored to you and your needs, whether that means navigating PTSD and alcohol dependence, depression, or other co-occurring mental health conditions. Learn more about how our online alcohol therapy approach can work for you.

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Medication

Meeting with a physician can be a pivotal step in recovering from alcohol use disorder. Together, you and your treatment provider can discuss medication to stop drinking, and develop a care plan tailored to your needs and goals. Just like any other medical condition, medical treatment is an effective tool for recovering from alcohol use disorder. 

Community

Monument offers free, therapist moderated alcohol support groups on many topics related to changing your relationship with alcohol. Join a live session to share, hear from others, learn about new resources, and practice accountability. You can also engage in our anonymous online Community at any time. Connecting with others can make a huge difference. You are not alone in this, and there’s an entire community of people who are ready to support you.   

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Traumatic memories can be incredibly difficult to live with and no two experiences of trauma are alike. While we may not have all the words to describe or understand how trauma has affected us yet, we can begin by taking one step every day towards seeking peace, safety, and recovery. Our past experiences do not define us. All we can ask of ourselves is to go at our own pace, and accept all the support and love we deserve along the way.

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Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

Resources:

2010-2021, Harvard Health Medical School, Harvard University. https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/addiction 

Sources: Kathleen T. Brady, M.D., Ph.D., and Sudie E. Back, Ph.D. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arcr344/408-413.htm 

About the Author

Mark ZaussMark is a licensed mental health counselor in Florida with over 12 years of experience. He is a board-certified clinical mental health counselor by the NBCC — (National Board for Certified Counselors), a nationally certified counselor by the NBCC as well as a Board Certified Telehealth provider for online counseling. Mark is also a qualified supervisor. He graduated with honors from Rollins College which is recognized as one of the highest-rated colleges in the U.S. for mental health counseling. His specialties include treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, fear of being in a public place, social anxiety, relationship issues, career problems, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and substance abuse and addiction issues. Mark also specializes in helping others cope with new and difficult situations while having to adjust to a new way of life-related to the pandemic.