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Trauma and Alcoholism

A few years ago you got into a bad car accident. Even though you and your loved one recovered, it was something that left a tint on how you perceived the world. After months of physical therapy to get back to normal, you were still hesitant to even get into a car, let alone drive one. 

Sometimes at night, you’d lie awake after dreams of being in another accident woke you in the first place. Your sleeping habits had gone out the window since you came home from the hospital. You found it hard to eat sometimes, your appetite waning. Some days it felt like you were looking at the world through the eyes of someone else. Everything felt bland and empty, and you didn’t know how to move past it.

One night you were exhausted, still unable to sleep, and decided to grab some wine from the kitchen. Initially, you’d hoped it’d maybe numb your brain enough to sleep again, but the more you drank, the lighter you felt. You hadn’t felt this alert, this content in months. Had alcohol been the trick the whole time?

Trauma and alcoholism often go hand-in-hand. This isn’t because they inherently lead to one another, but rather because alcohol is often utilized to self-treat the symptoms of trauma. Nearly 1.5 million people in California have PTSD. At the same time, about 25% of Californians aged 12+ reported binge drinking within the past 30 days. Knowing the link between these two conditions can be especially important when it comes to identifying health concerns and addressing them in treatment.

Here at Pacific Sands, we believe in having a solution-focused approach to recovery. This includes helping people who haven’t walked through our doors. By answering questions the community has about substance use, and providing information on mental health, we hope to help more people find the treatment they need. Today we’re going to be looking at trauma and alcoholism, how the two interact, and what steps you can take to seek healing from both. 

Alcohol and Mental Health – Why People May Seek Alcohol to Cope with Trauma 

Trauma can feel debilitating at times. It is a mental health condition that impacts many aspects of a person’s life. How does this correlate with alcohol use? Why do people drink alcohol instead of going to therapy or other treatment? How does it get to this point?

While no two cases are ever the same when it comes to both mental health and alcohol use disorders, there are still a few factors we can keep in mind to shed some light on this topic. Let’s take a look at a few. 

What Is the Endorphin Compensation Hypothesis?

One of the leading hypotheses regarding the connection between alcohol use and trauma is referred to as the endorphin compensation hypothesis. The main aspect of this revolves around endorphins and how trauma and alcohol both impact them.

Endorphins are a type of hormone in the body that both help block pain from being perceived as well as induce general feelings of happiness and contentment. We produce these naturally as a result of things like exercising, listening to music, having sex, or even just laughing. 

When we experience trauma, our brain utilizes endorphins to help numb the feelings that come from it. This happens because the brain is trying to protect itself. After the trauma is over, or after our body recovers from “going into shock,” many people experience an endorphin withdrawal, which contributes to emotional distress that commonly happens after a traumatic experience. 

Alcohol increases endorphins when it’s in your system. This can be like a balm for people managing trauma. The problem is that the more you drink alcohol, the more likely you are to need to drink more to feel the same effects. This endorphin deficiency cycle can often lead to an alcohol use disorder. 

The Stigma Surrounding Trauma and Alcoholism

So we know one reason people might turn to alcohol use to help self-manage their trauma, but why don’t they seek out help for their trauma in the first place?

There is a lot of stigma still in our society that revolves around both mental health conditions and alcohol use. Every person’s life situation is different. If they’re in an environment where they’ve been taught that seeking help for their mental health is bad, they’re far less likely to do it. If they started drinking alcohol before considering getting help, they might have a hard time admitting they also want assistance in reducing or stopping their alcohol consumption.

Despite alcohol being legal across the United States, and also being fairly commonplace in our society, it’s still expected that “you should be able to stop at any point.” This completely ignores the many factors that can contribute to an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and often puts weight on the person with an AUD to “just stop.” It can make them less likely to seek support or even admit they have an AUD in the first place.

exploring the link between trauma and alcoholism

How Does Trauma Affect the Brain?

The exact ways that trauma can impact the brain vary depending on the age of the person experiencing the trauma. For those with developing brains, it has been shown that some aspects of development can be stunted or altered because of trauma.

For adults who’ve experienced trauma, their brains can still be altered too. It primarily impacts how we learn things and how safe we feel in our environment at any given time. 

The Side Effects of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common condition developed after being exposed to trauma. The timeline for the development of PTSD can take anywhere from a few days to even a few years. Our brains are very complex, handling and addressing trauma in different ways. It’s not unusual for the mind to suppress trauma and only bring it to light when it feels like it’s safe to do so. This happens as a survival mechanism, much like how adrenaline can make us ignore the pain of wounds when we’re in serious situations. 

PTSD often involves flashbacks, where you have recurrent and unwanted memories of the event. These memories can often leak into dreams, leading to frequent nightmares. Additionally, you might develop triggers, which are any form of stimulation that reminds you of the event. Triggers often come with physical and mental reactions such as flinching and flashbacks.

Trauma doesn’t just impact your memory, however, it also affects your mood and behavior. Some common mental and behavioral symptoms include:

  • Negative thoughts about yourself and others
  • A feeling of hopelessness
  • Disconnecting from friends and family
  • Feeling numb
  • A decrease in experiencing positive emotions
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling like you’re constantly on alert for danger
  • Irritability 
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame

Can Alcohol Worsen the Effects of Trauma?

While at the beginning it may feel like alcohol is the cure for trauma, this is not the case in the slightest. Over time, alcohol will not only negatively impact your physical health, but your mental health as well.

Many of the symptoms of long-term alcohol use overlap with the symptoms of trauma. This includes things such as impacted relationships and withdrawing from activities you used to enjoy. On top of that, AUDs lead to an increase in alcohol consumption to experience the same effects, cravings, an inability to cut back on drinking, and experiencing withdrawal whenever you don’t drink.

Alcohol use disorders are known to contribute to or lead to the development of mental health conditions such as depression. AUDs can also negatively affect your self-care routines, such as proper nutrition or cleanliness. This can then snowball into further depression or a worsening opinion of yourself.

Our bodies and mental health thrive on taking care of ourselves. AUDs contribute to many habits and behaviors that interfere with the healing process.

What Are the Options for Treating Alcoholism and Trauma at the Same Time?

When someone is managing both trauma and an alcohol use disorder at the same time, this is known as a co-occurring disorder, sometimes referred to as a dual diagnosis. When seeking treatment, both aspects must be treated and addressed. If one condition is addressed without the other, the odds of returning to use after treatment increase greatly.

If you’re looking to start the recovery journey away from alcohol use as well as to better manage your trauma, there are options out there for you.

impac -of trauma on alcohol dependency

Finding Recovery Options for Co-Occurring Disorders in California

Not every facility that treats AUD also treats trauma, just like not every mental health hospital is equipped to treat an AUD. Keep this in mind when you’re searching for facilities to start your recovery journey.

Another component to keep in mind is finding a place that offers alcohol detox programs. The withdrawal process for alcohol can be dangerous if not monitored by a medical team. Some of the most deadly side effects include seizures and hallucinations. A professional medical staff can help keep you safe during the detox process and set you up for long-term success during your recovery journey. 

No matter your personal history of trauma and alcohol use, there are recovery options available for you. Here at Pacific Sands, our hands-on team and intimate facility setting ensure that you get the personalized attention you deserve during your recovery. If you’d like to learn more about our treatment programs, give us a call anytime at 949-426-7962.

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