Does Alcohol Use Stop You From Healing From Trauma?
Sometimes when people are coping with a trauma in their past, they will turn to drinking or using drugs to help them through the pain. Some use it to help sleep or to forget their pain, to numb the effects of flashbacks, or to help cope with anxiety, anger, or sadness. Alcohol is also used to block memories of the trauma. However, this is a very unhelpful and unhealthy approach to take.
Alcohol and the onset of PTSD
Alcohol can affect the onset of PTSD in a couple of different ways. First of all, excessive drinking will make you more likely to experience trauma such as an auto accident, domestic violence, or sexual assault. Most likely this is due to the fact that alcohol use and intoxication will decrease your judgment and increase your impulsivity. This means that you’ll be more likely to act in unsafe ways, putting yourself in risky situations which may then cause you trauma. Alcohol will also decrease your coordination and ability to respond quickly, which will increase your risk of injury and trauma.
Secondly, we know that if you were drinking when your trauma occurred, you will be more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD. Several studies have shown this. And, this is even more true if you are a woman who was drinking at the time of your trauma.
Lastly, if you already are a chronic drinker, the changes to your brain make you less able to cope with trauma as it occurs. Your cognition is sluggish and you will have trouble processing the sensory and physical messages sent from your nerves throughout your body. This difficulty processing will increase the probability of developing PTSD.
Alcohol and PTSD Symptom Management
Drinking has been shown to increase PTSD symptoms such as irritability, flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, and depression. Alcohol is essentially a depressant drug and as such will depress the function of your nervous system. This means it will slow down your brain’s ability to function and will affect things such as decreasing coordination, causing confusion, slowing reasoning abilities, slowing the speed of messages going to and from your brain, slowing your ability to respond to situations, and can also cause anxiety, depression, and stress. All of this will ultimately negatively affect your ability to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.
Alcohol is also associated with an increased risk of suicide in people with PTSD.
Alcohol and Dissociation
Alcohol will also cause difficulties coping with dissociation, a major symptom in PTSD. This basically is feeling numb or not feeling your emotions. This is because alcohol itself can have a numbing, dissociative effect. The fact that alcohol slows down your processing, it can provide temporary relief of symptoms. Ultimately, however, this numbing effect will worsen the PTSD and slow your recovery.
Alcohol and Sleep
We know that after we drink, we often will get a burst of energy, and then start to feel tired. Because of this, many people will use alcohol to help them sleep. However, while it might help you to fall asleep faster, it actually will hurt your sleep in the long run by negatively affecting your REM sleep. This will ultimately decrease the quality of your sleep and reduce sleep’s ability to help you heal and feel restored.
Alcohol’s Effect on Treatment
Because of the effect that alcohol has on your ability to think and your reasoning, it will also negatively affect your ability to participate in therapy in an effective way. Therapy requires you to be able to recall things from your past, examine your feelings and motivations, draw conclusions, and to generally be thoughtful. It will help you to learn new coping skills, but using will impede your ability for new learning, processing emotions, and otherwise being available to the positive benefits of therapy.
If you are currently struggling with PTSD and have been drinking as a way to cope, please stop. The bottom line is that this is not going to help you to feel better and will actually make your symptoms worse. The good news though is that both PTSD and problem drinking are treatable. If you would like to talk more about this, or about trauma treatment, please contact me at the link.