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Can PTSD Be Effectively Treated With Benzodiazepines?

Someone who struggles with PTSD is having a difficult time recovering from a traumatic event.

The person either experienced or witnessed an event that they can’t recover from, and it is causing them to experience recurring and distressing mental health symptoms.

There are many treatments available for PTSD, and most often, a combination of therapy and medication is recommended. Benzodiazepines can be used to treat PTSD, but they come with many risks.

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Staying away from places, events, or things that are reminders of the event
  • Avoiding thinking about or dealing with feelings related to the event
  • Being easy to startle
  • Constantly feeling on edge or tense
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty remembering key features of the event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself
  • Excessive guilt or feelings of blame
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains that symptoms will present themselves differently in each individual. Not everyone will experience all the symptoms, and symptoms will vary in intensity. Symptoms usually begin to show up within three months of experiencing the traumatic event, though they may not appear until something triggers them years later.

PTSD Treatment Options

Because the symptoms and experience of PTSD vary so much from person to person, it is a good thing that there are many treatment options for helping someone with the disorder. The primary treatment methods for PTSD are medication and therapy.

Antidepressants are the most common type of medication prescribed to help alleviate PTSD symptoms. There is a wide variety of antidepressants available, however, so doctors and patients usually have to work together to find the most effective medication. In some cases, a combination of medications may be most appropriate, though this should only be done under a doctor’s supervision. Mixing medications on your own can lead to serious and dangerous side effects.

Medications play an important role in alleviating acute and debilitating symptoms of PTSD, but psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), has been found to be the most effective form of treatment for the short-term and long-term treatment of PTSD. When helping someone with PTSD, CBT keeps the traumatic event as the focus of therapy. It helps clients identify, understand, and change their thinking and behaviors related to their PTSD. New skills are identified, practiced, and reinforced as symptoms improve.

Using Benzodiazepines to Treat PTSD Symptoms

Benzodiazepines, while not antidepressants, are occasionally used to treat PTSD symptoms. Benzodiazepines (benzos) are central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs, which makes them helpful for treating conditions like anxiety and seizures that are caused by excess nerve activity in the brain. For people with PTSD who are presenting with anxiety-related symptoms, benzos may be beneficial.

In addition to anxiety, benzos are prescribed for the treatment of:

  • Nervousness
  • Panic disorders
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizures
  • Alcohol withdrawal

When antidepressants are effective for helping to manage symptoms of social anxiety disorder or panic disorder, doctors may recommend trying benzos. For people who struggle with PTSD who experience constant nervousness, anxiety, and have trouble sleeping, benzos may be useful.

Risks of Benzo Use

Benzos, like any prescription medication, come with a potential for experiencing risks and adverse side effects. One of the greatest risks associated with benzo use is that of developing dependence and addiction with long-term use. Benzos are generally considered to be safe and effective for the short-term treatment of anxiety-related disorders, but the potential for tolerance and overdose makes them less than ideal for extended lengths of treatment.

Benzo misuse plays a significant role in the prescription drug crisis that the U.S. is facing. Admissions to emergency rooms for benzo-related misuse have tripled since 1998. Even though the risks of benzo misuse are becoming more and more widely known, doctors continue to prescribe them, and people continue to misuse them.

Benzos are powerful medications that people can get hooked on fast. Tolerance is expected to develop within just a few days of daily use and dependence can develop within just a few weeks to months. Additional unpleasant side effects of benzos include dizziness, drowsiness, impaired cognition and coordination, and feelings of depression. Furthermore, benzodiazepines are known to mix poorly with many medications and substances, including alcohol. Mixing alcohol with benzos can cause a fatal overdose.

Benzo use also runs the risk of causing rebound symptoms when you stop taking your medication. Benzo use is meant to be short-term, so you must stop taking them at some point, so you don’t develop an addiction. When you do stop taking the medication(s), however, your symptoms may reappear and be worse than they were before you started taking benzos.

Studies have found that when benzos are used to treat insomnia, the effectiveness of the medication wears off after a few weeks. You may get some initial relief from your insomnia, but it will likely only be temporary.

PTSD

Additionally, rebound insomnia was reported when people stopped taking the medication. Cognitive impairment and substance abuse were two additional serious risks associated with long-term benzo use.

Dangers of Treating PTSD With Benzos

The implications for benzodiazepine use to treat PTSD vary depending on whether they are going to be taken for the short-term or long-term. The risks of using benzos for any condition increase greatly the longer you take them. Benzos are only meant to be used for the short-term management of distressful symptoms. Use that lasts longer than a couple of months is likely to lead to dependence and then possibly addiction.

Researchers have found that benzos are relatively ineffective for the prevention and long-term treatment of PTSD. The risks associated with benzo use, such as addiction and adverse side effects, outweigh their potential for providing short-term benefits. Benzos can cause problems for anyone who takes them, but there are specific risks for people with PTSD.

Studies have shown that people who have PTSD and take benzos experience adverse reactions that include:

  • A worsening of PTSD symptoms
  • Increased risk of developing PTSD in response to additional traumas
  • Poorer outcomes in therapy
  • Increased aggression
  • Ongoing depression
  • Substance abuse

There is no significant evidence available to support the use of benzos for the treatment of PTSD. Benzos may be able to ease some acute symptoms of anxiety or insomnia, but the risk of taking these medications are likely to outweigh the benefits. Benzos should be given with extreme caution to people who have recently experienced trauma, as they could make recovery much more difficult in the long run.

Alternative Treatment Options

If you are wary of taking prescription medications to treat your symptoms of PTSD, there are many complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) that have been studied and found to be effective for alleviating symptoms. None of the following alternative treatments are likely to manage PTSD on their own, but they can play a significant supportive role in your recovery.

Certain CAMs can help alleviate symptoms of PTSD. They include the following:

  • Exercise can release endorphins and reduce your stress response.
  • Spend time in nature to experience peace, relaxation, and seclusion.
  • Join a support group. Connecting with others with PTSD can be hugely supportive for your recovery
  • Eat a healthy diet to support your physical and mental well-being.
  • Stay away from drugs and alcohol. This will help you avoid self-medicating difficult emotions or potentially interfering with any medications you may be taking.
  • Meditation and yoga can help you learn relaxation techniques and how to gain control of your relaxation response and PTSD symptoms.
  • Get sufficient sleep to ensure full recovery from each day and to avoid sleep deprivation that can cause irritability, moodiness, and anger.

Incorporating any combination of the above complementary practices into your daily routine promotes general well-being and happiness. If you are struggling with PTSD, these practices may make the difference in your ability to achieve a timely and full recovery.

You Are Not Alone

If you have developed symptoms of PTSD in response to a traumatic event, you are not alone. As of 2014, about 7.7 million adults in the United States were struggling with PTSD.

PTSD can be debilitating and overwhelming, but it is a treatable condition. You can begin by speaking with your doctor or taking advantage of the free resources made available by organizations across the country, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), that are dedicated to promoting mental health and wellness.