Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that is usually caused by the experience of a traumatic or life-threatening event. For some, symptoms of PTSD can occur after being exposed to the results of a trauma or seeing a traumatic event threaten or harm someone (e.g., terrorist attack, physical or sexual assault, car accident, natural disaster, war experiences, etc.).
The symptoms can be highly intrusive to the person’s experience. They may include nightmares, an avoidance of anything related to the trauma, insomnia, extreme agitation, mood swings, anger management issues and panic attacks. Medication can be useful in the management of these symptoms, but in some cases, abuse of prescription drugs for the treatment of PTSD can lead to a co-occurring disorder: substance abuse or addiction.
There are a number of different kinds of medications that can be useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including antidepressants (e.g., sertraline, paroxetine), atypical antidepressants (e.g., mirtazapine, venlafaxine), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (e.g., isocarboxazid, phenelzine), mood stabilizers (e.g., carbamazepine, lithium), antipsychotics (e.g., risperidone and prazosin).
Determining the correct combination of medications and the right doses can take time. Unfortunately, some patients may end up struggling with prescription drug abuse as a result of abuse of the medication used to treat their PTSD, especially if they also use illicit substances, including alcohol.
Abuse of PTSD Medications
It is rare for patients to abuse most of the medications used in the treatment of PTSD. Only anti-anxiety medications (e.g., benzodiazepines like Ativan, Xanax and others) can create a high that may be addictive to users. In an effort to avoid the symptoms of panic and anxiety that can be overwhelming, patients may take too much or feel unable to manage certain situations without taking high doses of their prescribed medication.
Any use of a prescription drug outside of a doctor’s orders is termed “abuse,” and cravings for the drug can signify an addiction – as does the inability to stop use of the drug despite increasing negative consequences. If prescription medication abuse or addiction is suspected, immediate treatment is recommended.
Medication alone is not enough to treat PTSD effectively. Rather, a range of therapeutic options is recommended to help patients process the traumatic event and learn how to manage symptoms. Some recommended therapies for PTSD treatment include:
- Cognitive therapy: Some of the power of a traumatic event and the difficulties the memories of that cause in the person’s life are due to perspective. Identifying the perspectives and thought processes that may be making the trauma more difficult to process and learning more healthful perspectives are the goals of cognitive therapy.
- Exposure therapy: Talking about the trauma can feel overwhelming to patients, but the goal of exposure therapy is to reduce the power of the traumatic memories by talking about them in a controlled environment with therapeutic support.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): The reaction to the memory of trauma is the focus of EMDR. Patients are encouraged to focus on different stimuli including tapping fingers, eye movements and sounds as they talk about memories. Over time, it is believed that patients can change how they react to the memory of their traumatic event and diminish symptoms as well as learn new relaxation and coping mechanisms.
If someone you love is struggling with a substance abuse disorder due to the medications they are taking for PTSD, treatment should address both the PTSD symptoms and the addiction disorder. Call now for more information and to be connected to a treatment program that can help.
Further Reading About Medications for PTSD and Risk of Abuse
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton