Heavy drinking in college can lead to impulsive behaviors like getting into a car with a drunk driver who causes a horrific accident, or a heated exchange leading to injury. These types of traumatic situations are the seeds of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can occur when a person is involved with or witnesses a tragic event. The symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety and depression. A new study finds that heavy drinking in college by those with PTSD can worsen the symptoms.
Jennifer P. Read, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Buffalo and principal investigator for the study, explains that college is a big adjustment for students and a time of increased risk for heavy drinking as well as trauma exposure. Read and her fellow researchers looked at how PTSD and heavy drinking interacted in 486 students as they enrolled in college and at 11 additional follow-up points over a three-year period.
It’s estimated that nine percent of college students meet criteria for PTSD. Those with symptoms of the disorder may be more inclined to drink heavily, perhaps to self-medicate against hard to treat symptoms. But the heavy alcohol consumption in turn worsens the PTSD symptoms in time, eventually engaging the student in a cycle of increasing symptoms and increased drinking.
This is the first study to examine the bidirectional nature of the relationship between heavy drinking and PTSD. Experts have long believed that PTSD and heavy drinking create a cycle in patients, but this is the first study to test that theory.
Read says that the findings show a clear connection between alcohol use and an exacerbation of PTSD symptoms. In turn the PTSD symptoms similarly affected alcohol consumption.
The information gained by the study could have immediate clinical applications for those who treat students dealing with either PTSD or heavy drinking.
Earlier research by Read also demonstrated that the transition to college is associated with increased levels of heavy drinking and drug use and their related negative consequences. Read’s work included suggestions that interventions designed to reduce problem substance use may help students transition into college with fewer difficulties overall, as well as strengthening them for life beyond college.