Medications and the Mismanagement of PTSD

Psychotherapy vs. Medication

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Large scale, long term studies reveal that psychotherapy is as effective as medications, lasts longer than drug treatments, and avoids the harmful side effects. Despite growing evidence for the efficacy of psychotherapy, the use of therapy has decreased in the last decade while the use of medications has been on the rise (APA, 2012). This is due in part to the billions of dollars allocated to “direct to consumer” advertising by pharmaceutical companies. Psychotherapy simply can’t compete for marketing airtime and the results are misleading to those suffering with mental health conditions.

“We are all vulnerable when we experience anxiety, panic, or despair and in these times we are especially dependent upon the experts around us to provide sound medical and psychological care.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Medications on the Rise

The use of medications for mental health is on the rise. As a culture we tend to uphold an imbalanced focus on short-term vs. long term goals and aim towards the quick fix (Gaudiano & Miller, 2013). The use of antidepressants has multiplied almost fiftyfold in the last twenty years and it has been estimated that one in eight Americans, including children and toddlers, is now taking a psychotropic medication.


Friedman (2012) asserts that within the military the number of Ritalin and Adderall prescriptions written for active-duty troops had increased nearly 1,000 percent in five years from 3,000 to 32,000. The military has used these stimulants to help fatigue and sleep-deprived troops stay alert and awake.  Military services have also traditionally relied on prescription drugs (primarily benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin) to help troops manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 2010 over 200,000 (20%) of active-duty troops were taking some form of psychotropic drug (Brewin, 2012).

Waking Up to the Problem

Yehuda (2008), a researcher in trauma and PTSD, reveals that use of benzodiazepine medications suppresses physiological and psychological processes necessary to adapt effectively to trauma exposure. She indicates that benzodiazepines increases the likelihood of the development of PTSD and prolongs the healing process.

PTSD can leave you feelin stuck and overwhelmed

In 2012, the Army Surgeon General changed the military’s policy around prescribing benzodiazepines concluding the harm outweighs the benefits, they are contraindicated for both acute stress and PTSD, and they should be avoided. This same memorandum provides recommendations for evidence based trauma treatment that includes the use of trauma-informed therapies, EMDR, and supports adjunctive integration of mind-body therapies (Brewin, 2012).

ADHD drugs are also possibly contraindicated for individuals with recent trauma exposure.  Stimulant medications, such as Ritalin and Adderall, cause the direct release of norepinephrine in the brain which facilitates the formation of vivid, long-lasting memories. In short, taking stimulant medications during a time of acute trauma exposure may increase your risk of becoming fear-conditioned and developing PTSD. (See Friedman, 2012).

Be an Informed Consumer

I recognize the importance of medications when your symptoms are preventing you from effectively managing daily tasks such as parenting children or keeping your job. There are times when drugs play an essential role in the treatment of mental health. Unfortunately, sometimes they are taken much longer than necessary. Additionally, insurance companies may be hesitant to cover psychotherapy preferring the idea of a cost effective quick fix. However, the field of psychology is realizing that the “costs” of medicalizing mental health has a far more expensive long-term impact on both mental and physical health.

In my experience treating trauma for the past 15 years I have seen the negative impact of medical mismanagement of PTSD. I have witnessed clients suffer trying to recover from their psychopharmacological treatments and painfully try and rebuild their lives from the impact of physiological and psychological dependence upon medicine; conditions that are sometimes equally painful or worse than the initial traumatic events.

We are all vulnerable when we experience anxiety, panic, or despair and in these times we are especially dependent upon the experts around us to provide sound medical and psychological care. When possible I recommend the following:

  • Find a therapist who is trained in the treatment of trauma. Look for exposure therapies, somatic trauma treatment models, and EMDR. Ask potential therapists what modalities they utilize and whether there is evidence of their efficacy. Find a clinician who you feel comfortable working with and who you connect to. Be willing to get uncomfortable (i.e. turn towards the painful memories) within the supportive, therapeutic environment.

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  • Coordinate your medical and psychological care. Should you need medications, aim towards short-term use in conjunction with and not in lieu of psychotherapy. Give permission for you psychotherapist and prescribing doctor to communicate so that you have a team to facilitate your healing process.
  • Explore mind-body interventions as adjunct to your psychotherapy. When treating PTSD I have seen clients have great success when we develop an integrative wellness team. Mind-body therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and craniosacral therapy, and yoga have been particularly helpful. Perhaps explore how developing a mindfulness practice such as meditation or yoga might serve you as a natural ways to manage anxiety. I highly recommend taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course to support your overall health.

Finding comprehensive trauma treatment is not always accessible or affordable. However, the field of psychology is developing an increasing understanding of what comprises good trauma-informed psychotherapy and creating excellent training programs for clinicians in this specialized area of care. As an informed consumer, knowing what to look for in your treatment providers is a significant part of the process and increases your likelihood of finding the treatments that will best serve you.

Further reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.


Medications and the Mismanagement of PTSD — 3 Comments

  1. I am overwhelmed with this information. I have gastreophises, Baretts, PTSD, severe anxiety, periods of deep depression, chronic insomnia & more. I am under the care of specialists in all those areas. Far too many medications. I am a survivor of extremely violent & traumatic losses while growing up. Married 2 abusers & thought I had married the perfect person the 3rd time. We have been together almost 30 years but it has been full of emotional pain for the past 4 years. My carer of 39 years I was an Executive, but still had direct contact or involvement in tragedies every day. I never broke down & actually was always calm & able to make multiple decisisions at rapid speed. As I write this I do not want to even move. I feel frozen in time. I don’t know how to move & get better. I see value in these articles, but I really do not want to do anything. I am confused. I am a fighter. But I am so tired. How do I get help, I am 68 & have grandchildren from 23 to 2 months. I have a lot to live for. I want to live & I want to be strong again. But I seem stuck.

    • Vicki, your story of trauma history, mental health symptoms, and chronic health challenges is unfortunately common and difficult to unwind. It is easy to feel stuck. The road towards healing is long, but persistence and perseverance is key even when it feels you are going nowhere. It is important to have good psychological care and to partner with health care partners whom you trust. I’m glad you write in here and reach out. Sometimes knowing that someone hears your story and is listening helps too. You are clearly a strong person given your history…sometimes strong can only carry us so far and then the hurts stop us in our tracks. I am glad you have your grandchildren, and moreover that you have the desire to want to live and enjoy life again. Keep on! I believe in you.
      Dr. Arielle

  2. I understand that this article is a few years old but am in search of information to assist me and my PTSD. I was never officially diagnosed with PTSD but have suffered complex trauma due to my position in the military. After leaving over 30 years ago I recently began working with three branches of the military in the mental health field. I am a trauma specialist and work with 40 clients weekly with no issues. Two years ago I was diagnosed with Narcolepsy due to contact with certain chemicals in the military. My Dr. prescribed a number of medications but none helped the problem. About a month after the first medication he prescribed Adderall. Two weeks into taking the medication I cut myself and immediately had a nasty flashback from a specific incident that involved a horrific death scene. I was able to control the situation because of my training and I talked myself through. My Dr. immediately took me off of the Adderall but left me on Nuvigil. Two weeks ago I entered the hospital for an emergency issue and in the process there was lots of blood and according to family, the nurse and Dr. I had a flashback and had no idea where I was for over three minutes. I became combative until they removed the bloody materials from the room but I was still a mess for hours afterwards. My family had no idea about my past and unfortunately discovered the hard way. Two nights ago after having a few stressful days at work I was unable to sleep as I continued to have flashbacks from a different death scene from over 30 years ago! Again I was able to focus and bring myself back to reality but the images are still there and I’m concerned that it may happen again. I have no idea where to go for advice or help. My Dr. feels that the stimulants may be causing this problem but without the Nuvigil I am unable to stay awake during the day. Any advice or information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. JR

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