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Study Finds Vicious Cycle of Heavy Drinking, Worsening PTSD in College

Study Finds Vicious Cycle of Heavy Drinking, Worsening PTSD in CollegeA new study finds that heavy drinking in college may worsen post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms over time.

Researchers estimate that 9 percent of college student have PTSD. Investigators discovered that college students who have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to drink more alcohol than peers without it.

In turn, heavy alcohol consumption exacerbates their PTSD symptoms, prolonging a vicious cycle.

The new research is the first experimental review of the bidirectional influences of heavy alcohol consumption and PTSD phenomena, influences that had been theorized but never tested.

“College is a time of important developmental changes and a period of risk for heavy drinking, trauma exposure and post-traumatic stress symptoms,” said Jennifer P. Read, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo and principle investigator on the study.

“Heavy drinking is common on college campuses and related to risk for sexual assault, interpersonal violence and serious injury, any of which may trigger PTSD,” she said.

The study examined the relationships between PTSD and heavy drinking in 486 students as they transitioned into college and at 11 additional points over the following three years.

“We show that alcohol use and associated problems are linked over time to an exacerbation in PTSD symptoms, and that PTSD symptoms show a similar effect on alcohol consumption.

“Each affects the other. As such, both PTSD and heavy drinking are risk factors for one another, each with implications for the other over the course of college,” Read says.

“This information is useful and perhaps imperative for those who assist students dealing with these problems.”

Read’s research focuses on the etiology of and interventions for problematic alcohol and other substance use in young adults.

Her prior research has examined both environmental and individual determinants of alcohol use, in particular, how individual-level factors such as gender, emotional state and alcohol cognitions (e.g., expectancies, motives) may account for different responses to the social environment.

In a 2011 study of 3,000 college students, published in the journal Psychological Trauma, she found that about 9 percent met the criteria for PTSD, with the disorder found to be most common among those exposed to sexual and physical assault, most of whom were women.

A 2012 study by Read and colleagues found that the transition into college is marked by an escalation in heavy drinking, drug use and use-related negative consequences. The study suggested interventions may help to ameliorate problem substance use and ultimately facilitate a stronger transition into college and beyond.

The current study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Source: University of Buffalo

College student drinking photo by shutterstock.

Study Finds Vicious Cycle of Heavy Drinking, Worsening PTSD in College

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Study Finds Vicious Cycle of Heavy Drinking, Worsening PTSD in College. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 17 Jan 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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