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Alcohol Abuse in Veterans

Links to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Updated November 05, 2008

Veterans have been found to experience a number of difficulties, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, physical health problems, and problems controlling anger. In addition, high rates of alcohol abuse in veterans are commonly found. However, despite these high rates of alcohol abuse, not much is known about why veterans may be at greater risk to develop alcohol use problems.

Alcohol Use and Related Problems in Active-Duty Military Personnel

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at alcohol use and problems from alcohol use (for example, not taking care of responsibilities due to alcohol use or driving a car after drinking) among 48,481 active-duty United States service members, many of which had been deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was found that deployed service members who were exposed to combat situations were at greater risk for binge drinking as compared to non-deployed service members and deployed service members who were not exposed to combat. In addition, those with PTSD or depression were more likely than those without PTSD or depression to have developed or experience continued alcohol-related problems.

The Connection between Combat Exposure and Alcohol Use

It is not surprising that alcohol use was found to be connected with combat exposure, PTSD, and depression. In fact, a number of other studies have found a connection between alcohol/drug use and PTSD. Because of this, it has been suggested that, among people with PTSD or who have experienced stressful life events, the use of alcohol or drugs may be motivated by desires to escape or alleviate uncomfortable feelings. That is, alcohol or drugs may be used to self-medicate distressing thoughts or feelings that arise from having PTSD or depression or the experience of a stressful life event. For example, in regard to the connection between alcohol and PTSD in particular, the severity of hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD has been found to be strongly connected with the use of substances that have a depressant or anti-anxiety effect, such as alcohol.

Getting Help

Drinking may initially result in a reduction in stress; however, in the long-run it can cause many serious problems. It is only a short-term fix and the uncomfortable feelings you are trying to get away from may come back even stronger. In addition, excessive alcohol use can cause a number of problems in many areas of your life, such as negatively affecting your relationship with family and friends.

You can find out more information about treatment providers in your area who might offer therapy for people with PTSD or depression and alcohol abuse through UCompare HealthCare from About.com. Specialized treatments for people with PTSD and substance use problems have been developed. One such popular and well-established treatment is Seeking Safety. This treatment helps an individual understand the relationship between PTSD and his or her substance use while also providing the individual with additional skills for managing distressing PTSD symptoms, so there is less of a reliance on substances.

Sources:
Chilcoat, H.D., & Breslau, N. (1998). Investigations of causal pathways between PTSD and drug use disorders. Addictive Behaviors, 23, 827-840.

Jacobson, I.G., Ryan, M.A.K., Hooper, T.I., Smith, T.C., Amoroso, P.J. et al. (2008). Alcohol use and alcohol-related problems before and after military combat deployment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 300, 663-675.

McFall, M.E., Mackay, P.W., & Donovan, D.M. (1992). Combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder and severity of substance abuse in Vietnam veterans. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 53, 357-363.

Najavits, L.M., Weiss, R.D., Shaw, S.R., & Muenz, L.R. (1998). “Seeking Safety”: Outcome of a new cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy for women with posttraumatic stress disorder and substance dependence. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11, 437-456.

Stewart, S.H., Conrod, P.J., Pihl, R.O., & Dongier, M. (1999). Relations between posttraumatic stress symptom dimensions and substance dependence in a community-recruited sample of substance-abusing women. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 13, 78-88.

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