The Connection between Trauma and Alcoholism

Contributor: Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry clinical team member Heather Wilk, MA, NCC

Stress Takes a Toll

The Connection between Trauma and Alcoholism

Stress is a common factor in most people’s lives. It can increase an individual’s anxiety, impair a person when it comes to completing tasks, and hinder one’s ability when it comes to making good decisions.

And while stress can cause undue repercussions when it comes to the status of a person’s physical and mental health, a history of trauma coupled with normal, everyday stressors can cause an individual to engage in risky behaviors that can produce life-threatening consequences as well.

Alcoholism, more specifically, is one such consequence that is common among those with a history of trauma. Experiencing, witnessing, or learning about a trauma can elicit a number of problems in a person’s life. Depending on the severity of the trauma, the following disorders can result,

These are commonly diagnosed in individuals who have endured traumatic circumstances.

Go-To, Unhealthy Coping Methods

And while some people are more susceptible to developing these types of mental health disorders, the abuse of substances is oftentimes the go-to coping method used when an individual lacks the resiliency and tools for coping with insurmountable levels of stress and distress that result after a trauma.

For many years, research has strongly tied trauma with drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, some research even suggests that those who have gone through a trauma develop problematic drinking habits and, conversely, those with a history of drinking are more vulnerable to developing a trauma-related disorder following a trauma.

Coping with Unpleasant Emotions

The Connection between Trauma and Alcoholism

Consuming alcohol as a way to deal with unpleasant emotions and feelings can worsen one’s mental state when these feelings and emotions are triggered by a trauma.

Survivors of trauma may not always be aware of this, as alcohol provides them with an escape from their inner turmoil. What could become apparent to the user and his or her close loved ones, however, is the development of alcoholism.

Prolonged abuse of alcohol that causes an individual to become dependent on it in order to get through the day is on the severe end of the spectrum in terms of what can happen if alcohol abuse is ongoing. But what causes this? What is so different about those with a traumatic past that makes them so vulnerable to developing alcoholism?

Trauma and Alcoholism

As was previously mentioned, trauma survivors often turn to alcohol as means of coping with unpleasant emotions. What must first be understood, however, are the contributing factors and influences that can cause an individual to resort to using alcohol in order to cope in the first place.

Developmental specialists and mental health professionals agree that if a person experiences trauma early in life, there is greater susceptibility to alcoholism later in life.

Genetics and the Environment

The two main causes for this pertain to an individual’s genetics and environmental influences. For example, if a child is the victim of abuse, possess a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse, and witnesses his or her caregiver(s) abusing alcohol, there is an increased risk for that youth developing an alcohol abuse problem at some point in his or her life.

Additionally, a great deal of research examining the impact of trauma has concluded that a personal and early history of severe traumatic experiences can alter an individual’s brain chemistry in such a way that a person’s ability to manage impulses and abstain from substance-using behaviors can become compromised.

Developing a Problem

The Connection between Trauma and Alcoholism

Adults who have a history of trauma in their childhood can remain vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol if they do not develop coping skills that will allow them to deal with stressors appropriately.

Furthermore, if a person has a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse and does not experience a trauma until later in life, the threat of alcoholism can still remain present if the abuse of alcohol occurs in response to said traumatic experience.

Regardless of when the trauma occurs, some individuals are more at risk and alcoholism has the potential for being a threat if a person turns to wine, beer, or spirits as a means of coping with the trauma he or she experienced.

Recognizing the Signs of Trauma and Alcoholism

Being able to recognize the signs of trauma and suggesting treatment for a person who has endured a traumatic experience is one of the most beneficial things close friends and other loved ones can do. These signs can include increased feelings of anxiety, avoidance of certain situations, exacerbated startle response, and personality changes after a trauma has taken place.

If you are unsure if a person possesses a trauma in his or her history, but suspect that someone you care for is battling an addiction to alcohol, recognizing the signs of alcohol abuse are important as well.

If a person is drinking despite adverse consequences, consumes more alcohol than he or she did before (i.e., has developed a tolerance to the substance), and is unable to adhere to responsibilities in his or her own life, alcohol abuse may be the problem.

The Connection between Trauma and Alcoholism

Getting treatment for an alcohol abuse problem can be life-saving for an individual. Whether or not it is apparent that a prior trauma has contributed to such a chemical dependency concern, mental health treatment can help a person overcome an addiction to alcohol and treat any underlying concerns that are related to a person’s traumatic past.

By engaging in care that addresses and treats substance abuse issues and trauma-related symptoms, a person can come to realize a life in which he or she is not bound by the circumstances of his or her past, nor is he or she ensnared in the merciless cycle of addiction. It is imperative to know that healing is always possible.



About the Author:

“The Connection between Trauma and Alcoholism” was written by Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry clinical team member Heather Wilk, MA, NCC. Heather has several years of experience working in the field of mental health as a psychotherapist and has her Master’s degree in Community Counseling from Concordia University – Chicago.

Site Description:

Encompassing five distinct and specialized units that are able to treat a myriad of mental health conditions, Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry is an exemplary treatment provider of psychiatric services for adults of all ages. Distinguishable from other such providers by offering individualized care, this hospital is one that places a great deal of focus on stabilizing and improving the lives of every individual who comes for treatment. At Ohio Hospital for Psychiatry, lives are changed for the better.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 31, 2015
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 6, 2021
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