Trauma symptoms can range from panic attacks and hypervigilance to dissociation and nightmares, all making it difficult to cope with daily life. As a result, many who encounter physical, sexual and emotional trauma attempt to reestablish calm and control by self-medicating with alcohol. In fact, abusing alcohol is one of the most common ways people self-medicate trauma symptoms, with up to three-quarters of trauma survivors making some attempt to manage symptoms of trauma with alcohol consumption. While alcohol may serve to alleviate trauma symptoms in the moment, over time, self-medicating with alcohol creates more problems for trauma survivors than it solves.

The Problems With Using Alcohol to Self-Medicate Trauma Symptoms

As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol use can provide a temporary way to calm the nerves when panic and other reactions to trauma set in. Because the body’s “fight or flight” reactions have been triggered, alcohol can serve to slow down these automatic responses in the body. Some of the side effects of drinkingactually amplify the effects of the trauma such as depression, irritability, isolation, emotional numbness and hyper-vigilance. Alcohol also serves to blur sensory perceptions, raise overall blood pressure, lower the quality of sleep we experience, and make our bodies less prepared for an actual crisis—making us less safe and less able to deal with danger than we are in a sober state.

Additionally, self-medication with alcohol can undercut mental and emotional healing from trauma. Alcohol use tends to promote repression, which can make traumatic reactions more unpredictable and enduring. Alcohol also allows us a temporary escape from emotional trauma reactions, fostering avoidant behavior and memory repression. The result is that trauma therapies become less effective in the long run, as alcohol prevents us from concentrating, remembering, and evaluating the physical, sexual or emotional trauma we’ve endured. Self-medication with alcohol to avoid nightmares, for instance, often leads to less recollection of dreams that could be useful in understanding our subconscious responses to trauma. Because we are not experiencing the trauma responses, we learn less about their meaning, and develop fewer ways to cope with triggers (such as visualizations or deep breathing). Ironically, we end up slowing down the emotional healing process as we use alcohol to attempt to escape the initial emotional pain.

Alcohol Dependency After Self-Medication of Trauma Symptoms

Ultimately, self-medicating trauma symptoms can also create a cycle of alcohol dependency in our lives. When panic attacks, nightmares, anxiety and flashbacks are continually medicated with alcohol, we run the risk of psychological addiction, believing that alcohol is the only way we can cope. We become less apt to struggle through trauma symptom management, finding relief in alcohol with increasing frequency. Over time, we find ourselves locked in a cycle of fear, use and shame. Even worse, our physical bodies can develop tolerance, causing us to increase alcohol intake in order to make trauma symptoms continually disappear. The physical body becomes dependent on alcohol in the process—leaving us with more problems than we initially started with.

Fortunately, many inpatient luxury alcohol recovery centers offer specialized services for trauma survivors. With the help of a dedicated talk therapist and hypnotherapist, you can often uncover and resolve the root trauma that has fueled your desire to self-medicate with alcohol. Survivors of physical, sexual and emotional abuse can find healing and coping mechanisms that eliminate the need to self-medicate by drinking. By curing the physical component of alcohol addiction through supervised detox, and addressing the emotional and psychological pain behind chemical dependency, you can live a life free of both trauma symptoms and alcohol addiction.

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