The Role of Uncontrollable Trauma in the Development of PTSD and Alcohol Addiction

By Joseph Volpicelli, M.D., Ph.D.; Geetha Balaraman; Julie Hahn; Heather Wallace, M.A.; and Donald Bux, Ph.D.

After a traumatic event, people often report using alcohol to relieve their symptoms of anxiety, irritability, and depression.

Alcohol may relieve these symptoms because drinking compensates for deficiencies in endorphin activity following a traumatic experience. Within minutes of exposure to a traumatic event there is an increase in the level of endorphins in the brain.

During the time of the trauma, endorphin levels remain elevated and help numb the emotional and physical pain of the trauma.

However, after the trauma is over, endorphin levels gradually decrease and this may lead to a period of endorphin withdrawal that can last from hours to days. This period of endorphin withdrawal may produce emotional distress and contribute to other symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Because alcohol use increases endorphin activity, drinking following trauma may be used to compensate this endorphin withdrawal and thus avoid the associated emotional distress. This model has important implications for the treatment of PTSD and alcoholism.

Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1999

Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse