At some point, whether in real life or Hollywood movies, you’ve probably heard someone say, “I need a drink” after dealing with a stressful situation. Many people use alcohol to help them relax and unwind.
Studies have shown that one is likely to consume more alcohol after a stressful event rather than during it. While enjoying a drink or two after elevated stress levels isn’t necessarily harmful, it’s important to consider the role alcohol and drugs play when someone is dealing with an ongoing chronic stressor or a stress-related disorder. These substances might not be used as an aid to occasionally calm down, but instead as an unhealthy (and usually unsuccessful) coping mechanism. Using alcohol to cope distracts the person from the issue at hand, but often allows the person to remain in denial or misplace blame and judgment.
One of the illnesses that addiction is commonly comorbid with is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder refers to the avoidance of intrusive memories from a traumatic event. Symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, and increased stress due to internal or external cues often result, making this mental illness especially intrusive and debilitating (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Due to its precursor of experiencing a distressing event, PTSD is common among sexual assault victims and military veterans. A study in 1997 suggested that women suffering from alcoholism were two to three times more likely to be comorbid with PTSD due to sexual and physical abuse. However, this statistic has likely changed, due to the increased awareness of PTSD among military veterans. When surveying 140,00 veterans who are incarcerated, a shocking 60 percent reported addiction and substance abuse problems. Another study found that nearly 1 out of every 10 returning veterans has experience substance use disorder.
Thomas J. Brennan, a sergeant in the Marine Corps, serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq, wrote for the New York Times about the drinking culture in the United States military. He explains that underage drinking is common, and that not a lot of action is taken to prevent it. He goes on to state how many soldiers diagnosed with PTSD used alcohol to self-medicate and relieve their symptoms, something he admits to doing it himself for a short period of time.
While society is becoming more aware of the issues that post-traumatic stress disorder can cause, particularly for military personnel, the US still struggles to treat addiction. Medication can help reduce the effects of PTSD, while Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help both PTSD and addiction (“PTSD: National,” 2015). It is critical for society to recognize the comorbidity between PTSD and substance abuse in order to allow for the creation of more effective treatments and resources. Because while drinking to relieve stress may be seen as a common part of culture in the United States, heavy substance use can increase complications and negative effects, especially when paired with other illnesses such as PTSD.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Brennan, T. J. (2013, October 1). In the military, the drinking can start on day 1. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/01/in-the-military-the-drinking-can-start-on-day-1/?_r=0
Newman, L. (2013, August 1). Break the silence: The reality of alcohol in military life. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://www.veteransunited.com/network/break-the-silence-the-reality-of-alcohol-in-military-life/
PTSD: National center for PTSD. (2015, August 13). Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/problems/ptsd_substance_abuse_veterans.asp
Volpicelli, J., Balaraman, G., Hahn, J., Wallace, H., & Bux, D. (1999). The role of uncontrollable trauma in the development of PTSD and alcohol addiction. Alcohol Research and Health, 23(4), 256-262.