Feb 9, 2023

Trauma and Alcoholism: Is There a Connection?

Trauma is one of the many risk factors for developing alcoholism. The chances of developing an addiction are largely linked to mental health. Trauma and alcoholism have been closely linked to one another. Treating both is vital to success. 

When treating co-occurring disorders as independent conditions, chances of success decrease dramatically. In these cases, the two conditions often worsen each other. They can make it challenging to address the underlying causes of the addiction adequately. 

How Does Addiction Develop in the Brain?

Addiction develops when a chemical, such as alcohol or drugs, causes changes in the cells in the brain. This is often done by either mimicking or blocking neurotransmitters, small molecules responsible for different signaling within the brain. As the brain adjusts to these various changes, it will either decrease or increase the number of receptors for these molecules to compensate for increased or decreased activity. 

Once the receptor numbers are adjusted, suddenly taking away the chemical that caused these changes can result in the brain’s inability to function correctly. The effects on the body when an addictive substance is abruptly removed cause withdrawal symptoms that often make it difficult to stop using alcohol or drugs without help. 

Signs of an Alcohol Issue

Signs of a problem with alcohol can range from very subtle to obvious. Two primary behaviors are seen with alcoholism: heavy drinking and binge drinking. Both are dangerous, but binge drinking is often harder to recognize as a problem.

Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking is excessive drinking regularly, often daily. Signs you may see with a heavy drinker include:

  • Needing a drink before doing routine tasks like going to work or running errands
  • Missing out on activities in favor of getting a drink
  • Ignoring personal health and safety, so they can continue drinking
  • They may also experience signs of withdrawal if they try to go too long without a drink

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is periodic, excessive drinking. Those who binge drink may be able to go for days or weeks without alcohol. Once they start drinking, they will consume several times the amount of an average drinker. These people are most at risk of having an alcohol-related emergency due to the shorter time frame they drink alcohol. 

Mental Health Issues and Alcohol Use Disorder

One of the short-term effects of alcohol is reducing the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. People may drink to reduce the symptoms of their untreated mental health issues.  

Once the short-term effects of alcohol wear off, the long-term effects can worsen the trauma and other mental health issues. Alcohol can emphasize and worsen the same problems that drove a person to begin drinking in the first place. 

People with mental health issues are more likely to become alcoholics if they drink than those without mental health issues.

What Is the Link Between Trauma and Alcoholism?

Trauma is highly linked to substance and alcohol use disorders. Adverse childhood experiences are a significant risk factor for developing AUD. Furthermore, people with AUD are ten times more likely to have experienced emotional or verbal abuse than those without one. 

Emotional neglect and physical neglect are also strongly associated with alcohol use disorders. Many who turn to alcohol try to forget traumatic events or suppress symptoms of PTSD, anxiety disorders, or depression that their childhood trauma may have caused. 

Experiencing trauma as an adult can also be a risk factor for alcoholism. This is especially true for veterans with PTSD. They may drink to suppress the intense emotions associated with triggering events and reminders. Additionally, an alcohol use disorder can increase a person’s risk of experiencing a traumatic event because those under the influence of alcohol are more likely to make risky decisions. 

Treating Dual-Diagnosis Trauma and AUD

The first step in treating co-occurring trauma and alcohol use disorder is getting a dual diagnosis. Whenever a person has co-occurring conditions, the most successful treatment plans address them simultaneously. Trying to address them individually can slow treatment progress and increase the likelihood of relapse in the case of alcoholism and other substance use disorders.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is used to manage any withdrawal symptoms to allow a patient to detox and recover from some of the more long-term effects of heavy alcohol consumption. However, because this doesn’t address environmental factors or emotional influences, MAT is best used in conjunction with other therapies. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help identify suppressed trauma. It’s used to reframe traumatic events to allow patients to understand better what happened in their past. It can also help them develop coping strategies for their trauma and identify triggers and situations that may lead to their desire to drink. 

Group therapy is another way of managing trauma and an alcohol use disorder. For many people, knowing they aren’t alone can be a significant factor in their recovery. In addition, sharing experiences can offer a sense of connection. People can also share coping strategies that may be able to help others. 

When Is It Time for Treatment

Whenever you feel you are struggling with mental health or an addiction, it’s time to seek help. While any help is better than trying to go it alone, your best chance at success is to pursue treatment from a qualified medical professional. Many addiction centers and rehab facilities, such as Massachusetts Addiction Center, exist nationwide, meaning help is never too far away. 

When looking for an addiction center to treat co-occurring trauma and alcoholism, there are a few things to look for. First, you want to ensure the chosen center has a good program for treating alcoholism. Then confirm they can also treat dual diagnosis to ensure you get appropriate care. 

The center should offer a variety of ways to access treatment, including partial hospitalization for those that need more intense care than an outpatient program can provide. So if you or a loved one are suffering from co-occurring trauma and alcoholism, reach out today to get help and start on the road to recovery.

MCA Staff
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