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Alcohol and Trauma: Definition, Types of Trauma, and Treatment

Last Updated: 9/09/2022

Trauma disorders are mental health disorders that may affect anyone from children to adults. Trauma disorders come with several unpleasant symptoms that people find difficult to cope with in day-to-day life. While there is no cure for trauma, there are various treatments. These include inpatient or outpatient care, support groups, and medications. These treatments help an individual develop healthy coping mechanisms. 

The relationship between alcohol and trauma is complex. Research shows that roughly 50-75% of those who have alcohol use problems also experience trauma. That said, not all those who experience trauma develop an alcohol use disorder. It’s also important to acknowledge that trauma increases the risk of developing alcohol abuse disorder (AUD).

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional, and sometimes physical, response to extremely stressful or disturbing events. Trauma often presents as feelings of the inability to cope, helplessness, and a lack of self-worth or self-preservation. However, pervasive anxiety and depression are common as well in individuals who struggle with trauma.

Trauma is common in people who experience war (military service), sexual abuse, physical abuse, and verbal abuse. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for trauma but it’s manageable with treatment and medication. Trauma is also one of the many reasons and factors of alcoholism.

What are the Types of Trauma?

There are three main types of trauma. These types of trauma are Acute, Chronic, and Complex trauma. While these are the primary types of trauma, it’s important to note that there are variations and subgroups within these types of trauma.

We list the types of trauma and more about them below.

  1. Acute Trauma generally results from a traumatic incident that someone experiences.  
  2. Chronic Trauma stems from stressful or harmful situations such as domestic violence or abuse.
  3. Complex trauma is the combination of exposure to multiple traumatic events and may happen over a long period or in a relatively short period. 

It is important to acknowledge that these are not the only types of trauma. Childhood trauma, which focuses on traumatic events that occur to children between the ages of 0 and 6 years old, has the potential to affect people throughout their lifetime. 

What are the Causes of Trauma?

Trauma comes from many different sources. Furthermore, the cause of the trauma is different for everyone who experiences the condition. Still, some experiences are more likely to cause trauma than others.

We list the causes of trauma below.

  • Physical abuse
  • Mental abuse
  • Sexual abuse or assault
  • Neglect
  • Being the victim of a crime
  • Accidents
  • Loss of someone close to you
  • Natural disasters
  • Kidnapping
  • War
  • Injury, illness, or medical procedures

Depending on the individual, some causes of trauma will vary.

What Does Unresolved Trauma Look Like?

Unresolved trauma presents differently in different people depending on their experiences. In general, however, unresolved trauma appears as things like addictive behaviors (alcohol or drug abuse), anxiety, depression, low self-image, inability to deal with conflict, or avoidant behaviors. Other signs to look for are a sudden and severe onset of depression, anxiety, or paranoia.

Resolving trauma is a significantly difficult task for those involved in the treatment plan as well as the patient. Researchers suggest that the most important factor in resolving trauma is to be with the patient and give those suffering the time and support they need. There are many types of treatments available for those suffering from trauma. These include one-on-one counseling or therapy, support groups, and medications to help treat anxiety or depression. 

How Does Alcohol Impact Those Who Have Experienced Trauma?

Many people may turn to alcohol to aid with sleep or to help distract from the symptoms of trauma. However, this often becomes an addictive habit with more negative aspects and consequences than helpful ones. 

Alcohol has the potential to increase the severity of negative symptoms of trauma like depression, anxiety, paranoia, nightmares, and irritability. Additionally, alcohol makes it harder for people to suppress or cope with traumatic memories and lessens their ability to cope with stress. 

Using alcohol as a coping mechanism has long-term effects on your emotional and behavioral regulation. This makes it more difficult to cope with new stressors in life. 

What are the Statistics on Alcohol and Trauma?

Between 50 and 75% of people who go through traumatic events report drinking problems. Alcohol misuse is also more common for those who have ongoing health problems as a result of the trauma they experienced.

Recently, there has been a significant amount of research showing the correlation between early childhood trauma and substance abuse disorders, such as alcoholism, and how the trauma experienced early on in life has a lasting impact on the way you interact with substances like alcohol. In recent studies, the data shows that up to 55% of those who are treated in inpatient facilities for alcohol dependence have a history of childhood trauma. 

Similarly, women in abusive relationships are 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol in adulthood than women who don’t experience trauma. One’s likelihood to turn to alcohol as a way to cope with the effects of trauma may also be based on the individual’s relationship with alcohol. Those who grow up in an environment where alcohol abuse occurs are 50% more likely to develop alcoholism.

What are the Risks of Alcohol in Traumatized Individuals?

Alcohol worsens the symptoms of trauma that people struggle to cope with. In the short term, individuals experience numbness or a lack of emotion. But over longer periods, alcohol increases negative symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia. For some, drinking also increases the prevalence of flashbacks. 

Below we list the risks of alcohol in traumatized individuals.

  • Increases the risk of developing anxiety 
  • Self-medicating doesn’t address the root cause of the trauma 
  • People who medicate with alcohol are less likely to seek treatment for trauma 
  • The risk of developing co-occurring disorders increases 
  • Alcohol abuse disorders become more likely
  • Increases the risk of developing depression and bipolar disorders 
  • Flashbacks 
  • Nightmares 
  • Night sweats

These are only some of the risks of alcohol in traumatized individuals. The risks vary depending on the person.

What are the Treatments for Trauma and Alcohol?

Treating alcohol and trauma is difficult and requires extreme attention and care. Most treatments involving treating trauma alongside another comorbidity are generally referred to as Trauma-Informed Care Plans. Trauma-Informed Care Plans emphasize the fact that the individual suffers from trauma. Therefore, the approach to the treatment is altered depending on the trauma.

In many cases where a patient is suffering from unresolved trauma and alcoholism, the initial focus is to help the patient detox from alcohol. Alcohol detox is done within inpatient or outpatient facilities under the care of a medical professional. Detox treatment plans also use medications like gabapentin. 

After detox, the individual chooses between a variety of treatment plans. Treatment plans include inpatient care, outpatient facilities, one-on-one counseling, or support groups. In some cases, anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants help the individual to cope in their day-to-day life as they begin to heal. Most verbal treatments revolve around helping the patient come to terms with their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to their trauma. 

What is the Relationship Between Alcohol and Trauma?

Trauma or unresolved trauma occurs before the onset of alcohol misuse or dependency as alcohol is generally a coping mechanism for the symptoms of trauma. For many people, alcohol is an easily accessible way to self-medicate. 

While there is no direct relationship, evidence suggests that one’s relationship with alcohol before trauma affects the way one uses alcohol in the time following the traumatic event. If there is an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, individuals are more likely to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Also, the involvement of alcohol in the traumatic event, such as in cases of mental, physical, or domestic abuse, impacts the way the traumatized individual views alcohol. In fact, alcohol may even act as a trigger for symptoms of trauma like flashbacks.

While 50%-75% of those who have undergone traumatic events have reported experiencing drinking problems, not everyone who experiences trauma will form an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. It is, however, imperative that those who are suffering from trauma avoid alcohol.

Do People Who Suffer from Trauma Drink Excessively?

Not everyone who suffers from trauma will drink excessively. However, alcohol abuse is increasingly common in those who experience trauma. 

The stigma that those who suffer from trauma drink excessively comes from our perception of veterans who suffer from PTSD and the way they have been portrayed in popular media (namely the way Vietnam Veterans are often portrayed). 

While there is a strong correlation that veterans who suffer from PTSD are more prone to alcohol and specifically binge drinking, there is no evidence to suggest that all people who struggle with trauma and/or alcoholism will drink excessively. 

Does Alcohol Relieve Trauma?

While some people may feel as though the effects of alcohol relieve their trauma, there is no evidence to suggest that alcohol relieves trauma. Alcohol, in many situations, makes the symptoms of trauma more challenging to manage. Furthermore, alcohol increases the risk of anxiety and depression and creates co-occurring disorders.

Does Alcohol Make Trauma Worse?

Yes, alcohol has the potential to make the symptoms of trauma worse. Recent studies show that people who drink alcohol before or during a traumatic event are at an increased risk of experiencing flashbacks. Additionally, alcohol has the potential to exacerbate some symptoms of trauma such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. For many people, the numbing effects of alcohol make the symptoms of their trauma more difficult to deal with when they are sober, which causes alcohol dependency.

Can You Drink Alcohol on Trauma Medication?

No, you should not drink alcohol while on trauma medications. While everyone who experiences trauma needs a unique plan to help them cope with the symptoms of their trauma, some people find relief with the help of medications. 

Some of the most common medications prescribed for trauma are Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Effexor. These medications are SSRIs or SNRIs and they work by affecting the neurotransmitters serotonin or norepinephrine. It’s important to note that the FDA has only approved Paxil and Effexor for treating PTSD. Moreover, doctors prescribe antidepressants, antipsychotics, or benzodiazepines. This depends on how the symptoms of trauma are present in the individual. 

Most of these medications, specifically antidepressants and benzodiazepines, have dangerous side effects with the potential for fatalities when mixed with alcohol.

Is Alcoholism Considered a Mental Illness?

Yes, alcoholism is a mental illness following the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It’s important to take into account that alcoholism is also a physical illness that takes a significant toll on the way both the body and mind function. For many people, alcoholism is a mental illness and a disease because it affects multiple aspects of your life and well-being. 

So, what is alcoholism? Alcoholism is a condition that develops in people who consume large quantities of alcohol. People who have alcoholism develop uncontrollable urges to drink and can’t control their drinking. Many people who suffer from alcoholism damage relationships and careers because of addiction.

According to the CDC, consuming more than 14 standard drinks for men and 7 standard drinks for women makes someone an alcoholic.