Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a well-known mental health condition that some people develop after exposure to life-threatening situations or other forms of extreme stress. Current evidence indicates that nearly one out of 10 U.S. college students develops symptoms of this disorder. In a study published in late 2013 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers from the University of Buffalo explored the link between PTSD and the dangerous practice of heavy alcohol consumption in college. These researchers found that there is a two-way connection between PTSD and heavy drinking.
People affected by post-traumatic stress disorder experience certain characteristic difficulties when attempting to recover from the emotional/psychological impact of facing situations that could potentially cause severe injury or death (either to themselves or to someone else). These difficulties can include an involuntary return to the mental/emotional experience of a traumatic event, conscious and unconscious actions designed to avoid reminders of a traumatic event and an unusual inability to turn off the heightened level of alertness associated with the body’s “fight or flight” response. Doctors only diagnose PTSD in people affected by these problems 30 days or more after trauma exposure; most affected individuals develop their symptoms within 90 days, although some don’t develop them for a year or longer.
Doctors and public health officials use the term heavy drinking to identify a pattern of alcohol intake that increases a person’s chances of developing a diagnosable case of alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse or alcoholism). As a rule, men fall into such a pattern whenever they habitually consume over four drinks a day or over 14 drinks a week. Women fall into such a pattern whenever they habitually consume over three drinks a day or seven drinks a week. People of either gender have a roughly one-in-five chance of developing alcohol use disorder when they drink heavily once every 30 days. Men and women who drink heavily once every seven days have a roughly one-in-three chance of developing the disorder. In men and women who drink heavily at least twice every seven days, the odds of developing alcohol use disorder rise to 50 percent.
In a study published in 2011 in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, researchers from the University of Buffalo examined the frequency of post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. college students. These researchers determined that about 9 percent of students qualify for a PTSD diagnosis. Those individuals most likely to be affected included three largely overlapping groups: women, victims of sexual assault and victims of physical assault.
In the current study, some members of the same research team (as well as other University of Buffalo researchers) used an assessment of 486 college and university students to look at how the presence of PTSD affects the risks for involvement in heavy drinking, and vice versa. They chose to investigate this topic because of the known connection between heavy drinking and the chances of being exposed to traumatic events such as sexual or physical assaults, as well as the known frequency of heavy alcohol consumption on college campuses. The researchers began tracking the study participants at the start of their first semester in school and conducted 11 follow-ups over the next three years.
After reviewing their findings, the researchers concluded that college students affected by PTSD have a significantly greater chance of drinking heavily than their peers unaffected by the disorder. Typically, participation in heavy drinking leads to a worsening of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress in these individuals. Conversely, the researchers concluded that college students previously unaffected by PTSD who drink heavily have increased risks for eventually developing the disorder. The presence of diagnosable alcohol-related problems is also associated with the development of PTSD.
Previous research efforts had shown that PTSD and heavy alcohol consumption were likely related in college environments. However, the authors of the study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology believe they are the first researchers to detail the interconnected relationship between these two problems. They also believe that doctors can potentially use the presence of PTSD in a college student as a predictor of future involvement in heavy drinking; conversely, doctors can potentially use the presence of heavy drinking in a college student as a predictor of the future development of post-traumatic stress disorder.