People consume alcohol for a wide variety of reasons. It may be to celebrate happy occasions, or it could be to hide pain or suffering. However, drinking to forget painful memories may be self-defeating, says a recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine published in Translational Psychiatry.
Measuring the response
The study identified the mechanism responsible for alcohol-related fear relapses.
Norman Haughey, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says, “If the effects of alcohol on memories to fearful responses are similar in humans to what we observe in mice, then it seems that our work helps us better understand how traumatic memories form and how to target better therapies for people in therapy for PTSD. In fact, binge drinking or other attempts to use alcohol to self-medicate could be sabotaging any therapy efforts.” The researchers estimate that as many as 60 to 80 percent of people with PTSD self-medicate by binge drinking.
To understand the effect of alcohol in eliminating fear responses from traumatic memories, the researchers used caged mice with an electrified floor and played six tones combined with an electric shock to replicate the “fear training” for PTSD. The following day, the mice were divided into two groups. The control group received water and the other group got water mixed with 20 percent alcohol for two hours.
Mice were then put into a textured box, and the researchers played the tone to retrieve the memory from the day before. After 15 minutes, the mice were placed back in the cage with the electrified floor and were subjected to 18 tones at 10-second intervals without a shock in an attempt to remove the fear response to the tones.
The mice showed less fear behavior (a stock-still pose suggesting fear) the longer the tones played.
The mice that were given alcohol the previous day froze more often than those who had taken only water. Mice given alcohol showed more fear.
The researchers removed brain tissue samples from the alcohol-drinking mice and from those that were given only water at different stages.
They concluded that the increased presence of the receptors at the synapses in the alcohol-drinking mice appeared to prolong the fear response.
Therapy for trauma
According to Dr. Susanne Drury, Ph.D., a consulting psychologist for Sovereign Health of Chandler, Arizona, the limbic system or midbrain and amygdala brain area react to traumatic events. Alcohol turns off the prefrontal cortex, so the message of therapy that “you’re not in danger” is unable to get through.
For this reason, Dr. Drury allows two weeks between detoxification and therapy. She notes that Sovereign uses eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which she describes as “amazingly effective.” The bi-lateral stimulation is performed in what Dr. Drury refers to as “tiny, bite size chunks.” She said, “We teach clients skills using dialectical behavioral therapy, skills for self-soothing, reformulating thinking and mindfulness. This research makes sense because to be mindful, the prefrontal cortex must be working.”
Sovereign Health of Chandler, Arizona, is a women-only residential treatment facility specializing in trauma. Whatever be the cause of the trauma, our compassionate and professional staff offer a nurturing, secure environment with state-of-the-art therapy and comfortable surroundings. Call our 24/7 helpline for further information.
About the author
Veronica McNamara is a staff writer for Sovereign Health. A former nurse, she enjoys writing about the causes and treatment of addictions and behavioral health disorders. She is a proponent of further public education on the subject of mental illness, which unfortunately still bears an unwarranted stigma. For more information and other inquiries on this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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