In a previous blog post I gave an overview of how research suggests a higher rate of PTSD in Vietnam veterans. Today, we’ll talk about a different, but related issue; how substance abuse ties into the equation. Addiction and alcoholism often co-occur among veterans with PTSD. Because of the high rate of PTSD in Vietnam veterans specifically, addiction and alcoholism can also pose a significant problem for those that fought in Vietnam.
How PTSD & Substance Abuse Are Related
PTSD can cause symptoms such as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, anger problems, difficulty sleeping, and feelings of panic, among various other things. In order to cope with these symptoms, it’s not uncommon for a veteran to turn to drugs or alcohol. Veterans with PTSD may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to numb the pain they’re feeling, or as a way to feel some control over their lives.
Research suggests that something called endorphin withdrawal plays a role in why veterans use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to control their PTSD symptoms. Endorphins are brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Their function is to transmit electrical signals within a person’s nervous system. Endorphins interact with opiate receptors in the brain in order to reduce a person’s perception of pain. In this way, endorphins act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In addition to decreasing the feeling of pain, endorphins can produce feelings of euphoria. When a person goes through a traumatic event, such as war, their brain produces endorphins to combat the high stress situation. Simply put, when a person’s brain releases high endorphin levels they are able to feel less pain and less of the negative side effects of stress.
Trouble arises when the event causing the brain to release endorphins is over. This is when the effects of endorphin withdrawal begin. Someone experiencing endorphin withdrawal might feel some of the same symptoms as someone experiencing withdrawal from drugs or alcohol such as:
- Emotional distress
- Physical pain
- Increased cravings for alcohol or drugs
As a result of endorphin withdrawal, a veteran with PTSD might then be more susceptible to give into those increased cravings for alcohol or drugs as a means to replace the feelings brought on by their brains naturally produced endorphins. The problem? The positive effects felt with alcohol or drugs are only temporary. Also, when drugs or alcohol are used to manage PTSD symptoms, the symptoms can actually become more severe. Alcohol can worsen depression and anxiety, while also interfering with normal sleep patterns. Someone with PTSD and under the influence of alcohol is more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior. PTSD and substance abuse often end up leading to legal problems, homelessness, poverty, family problems, and unemployment.
Substance Abuse & Vietnam Veterans
The Vietnam War was an especially violent one and a high number of veterans were placed in combat situations. Today, this would seem like an obvious trigger for high rates of PTSD; however, following the Vietnam War, both the medical community and the general public didn’t even think PTSD existed. This led many misdiagnoses and even views that Vietnam veterans were simply dysfunctional.
Without a proper diagnosis, it is near impossible to find effective treatment resulting in self-medication. The increased drug use in the United States in the 1970’s made self-medicating a much easier option than finding mental health treatment. A 2011 study looked at chronic PTSD in Vietnam veterans and how substance abuse played into their course of their illness. That study found that:
“The onset of alcohol and substance abuse typically was associated with the onset of symptoms of PTSD, and the increase in use paralleled the increase of symptoms, there are people that use recreational cannabis for beneficial purposes but there are those who also damage their health with it. Patients reported a tendency for alcohol, marijuana heroin, and benzodiazepines to make PTSD symptoms better, while cocaine made symptoms in the hyperarousal category [of PTSD symptoms] worse. ”
Another problem faced by Vietnam veterans was a lack of decompression time before returning home to civilian life. It was common for a combat soldier be sent home within 24-36 hours of their last firefight. Nothing was done to help with the culture shock experienced upon their sudden return home. A 2005 article written by Thomas Brinson and Vince Treanor describes this problem as:
“… the individual rotation patter utilized during the Vietnam War prevented soldiers from effectively working through their combat experiences before being plunged back into American society.”
What made things even worse was the unwelcome homecoming Vietnam veterans received. They often struggled with being shunned, ridiculed, and isolated from their prior social and work groups. The 2005 article also found that, “among Vietnam veterans seeking treatment for PTSD, 60 to 80% have alcoholism use disorders.”
Help Is Out There
Thankfully public views have changed since the return of Vietnam veterans, and there are many different treatment options available. The VA provides many resources for veterans seeking help for substance abuse and mental health problems. You can go here to see more information on what’s available through the VA. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also provides many different resources for those seeking treatment.