Drinking Alcohol Can Worsen PTSD, Study Finds

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Downing alcoholic drinks to drown out painful memories may end up doing just the opposite, according to new research.

In experiments involving mice, alcohol was found to strengthen emotional memories linked to fear, according to a John Hopkins University study recently published online in the Translational Psychiatry journal.

Its findings may shed light on alcohol’s effects on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly those who attend therapy for their condition but also drink to “self-medicate” their symptoms.

Binge-Drinking Can Hurt PTSD Therapy

Scientists who conducted the experiments noted that rodents who drank water mixed with 20 percent drinking alcohol were less likely to push their fears aside when compared with mice that drank only water.

During the experiments, mice were put into cages and exposed to a combination of electric shocks and tones to model the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. The next day, some of the rodents were given just water while others were given the alcohol-water mix. Both groups had access to the liquids for two hours.

Mice were then placed in a textured box and the tones were played for them again but without the electric shocks. Researchers noted that mice that were given the alcohol-water mix were more likely to “freeze” with fear than those that drank only water.

“Mice given alcohol the day before froze over 50 percent of the time, and those given water froze less than 40 percent of the time,” when hearing the tones, said a news release about the study. “The researchers say that mice given alcohol before their memory retrieval seemed to be more prone to fear relapse.”

This particular finding may offer insight into how drinking alcohol can affect PTSD therapy efforts, lending more weight to a dual diagnosis of co-occurring disorders.

“Binge drinking or other attempts to use alcohol to self-medicate could be sabotaging any therapy efforts,” says Norman Haughey, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said in the news release.

Drinking Common Among People With PTSD

Using alcohol to cope with PTSD is common among people with the condition, according to the National Center for PTSD, but it is a pairing that often brings trouble.

“Having both PTSD and a drinking problem can make both problems worse,” the center says on its website. “For this reason, alcohol use problems often must be part of the PTSD treatment.” It also urges finding a therapist who can treat both issues concurrently.

According to the center, about 8 percent of the population will have PTSD at some point in life. Anywhere from 11 percent to 20 percent of US veterans have PTSD in any given year. Veterans who need PTSD treatment also tend to have alcohol use problems.

PTSD, however, is not exclusive to war veterans. It happens to survivors of abuse or violent trauma, and people who have experienced accidents, illness, and disasters. People in all of these groups report drinking problems, according to the center.

Alcohol Can Increase PTSD Symptoms

People with PTSD may drink because they feel it helps them sleep better or that it numbs them to unpleasant feelings, thoughts, and memories. But alcohol use can increase PTSD-related symptoms, among them:

  • Anger, irritability
  • Depression
  • Increased paranoia
  • Ongoing physical pain

Effective treatment for PTSD involves:

  • Finding treatment that addresses both the disorder and the problematic drinking
  • Knowing how drinking affects PTSD symptoms.
  • Getting treatment that includes education, therapy and support groups that help support healthy acceptance of a drinking problem
  • Practicing healthy coping strategies for PTSD

Get Help for PTSD and Alcoholism

If you, or someone you know, have a parent, spouse, or other family member or friend who is battling alcoholism and PTSD, call (954) 866-4756 now to speak with one of our Pathway to Hope specialists. They can help you find a treatment program tailored to your specific needs today. They are standing by around the clock, waiting for your call.



Elysia L. Richardson

Elysia L. Richardson is a content writer and editor who covers addiction and substance abuse issues for Delphi Behavioral Health Group. Previously a writer and editor for various digital and print publications, she enjoys researching news in the recovery field and finding engaging ways to share information that helps improve people’s lives.

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