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A Dilemma of Veterans: When Does Medication Turn into an Addiction?

Veterans live a unique life. They begin as civilians, then enter into training, and ultimately take on the battlefield, but when it’s all said, and done, what happens when their service is over can be difficult. After service, life for veterans can include injuries, trouble sleeping, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more. To cope with the effects of their time in service, many veterans seek treatment from a doctor. As they do, veterans are often prescribed pharmaceutical medications to reduce their symptoms however, these may not work because a correct diagnosis isn’t always guaranteed.

The health problems that veterans face can be complex, and for this reason they may self-medicate with prescriptions, street drugs, or alcohol to try and mask the problems they have, or hide from them. This can contribute to the development of a double-diagnosis of substance use disorder (SUD), plus post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, self-medicating within the veterans community is common.

One staggering statistic revealed that one-third of U.S. veterans seek some type of treatment for PTSD, SUD or both. Beyond that, when they look for an effective remedy for their post-battlefield ailments, military veterans often face suicide, which was recorded at a rate of 20 veterans per day in 2014. In 2015, a reported 300,000 veterans may have died while waiting for healthcare from the VA. This includes people who committed suicide while waiting for mental healthcare for conditions including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What’s worse is that opioid use in veterans isn’t linked to effective pain relief. It is actually clinically shown to increase risk of death – by nearly 400 percent!1

Does this sound like a problem? Well, that’s because it is. And a big part of these brutal figures, as the VA points out, is that veterans either don’t get, or don’t have access to the healthcare to which they are entitled. Overall, veterans are twice as likely as civilians to lose their lives to an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers.2

How Can Veterans Cope?

After seeing a doctor for pain management, anxiety, or psychological disorders such as PTSD, or SUD veterans often leave with a prescription for painkillers, or some type of anti-anxiety medication. If they take these pills, most veterans will find themselves with the same symptoms, along with an increased risk of death by either accidental overdose, or suicide. So, it is very important that veterans consider alternative approaches to healing.

One, proven technique to reduce stress and help to center the mind, and body is known as Pranayama – an ancient yoga breathing meditation. To do it, all that is required is that you breathe. But that can seem like an insurmountable task to someone recovering from the shock of returning home from service as a U.S. soldier.

Try this 5-minute meditation to begin the healing process – without medication!

This is a Pranayama, for times when you feel irritated, frustrated, or angry. You can perform this breathing exercise in one minute, any place you want to regain your mental balance, by reducing your stress levels.

  • Face forward, and place your hands facing upward on your lap.
  • Take one deep breath inward through your nose, and as you count to (1-2-3-4-5) clear your mind of any thought, feeling, or memory.
  • Then, as you exhale all the way out of your belly, hum inside our mouth to make a buzzing sound with your breath.
  • Repeat this simple breathing meditation for veterans for 5 cycles to clear your mind any time you need a cooling feeling from stress.

This type of breathing meditation has been shown in research studies to effectively reduce post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military veterans.3

Signs of Self-Medication, or Addiction

It is very common for veterans to walk the fine line between medication, and addiction. And they have everything to lose. If you notice any of these 3 signs of addictive behavior in a veteran you know, or love, consider talking to a VA doctor about addressing the issue with a more sustainable option for long-term recovery.

  • Drug Tolerance. If a veteran takes a prescription for a long period of time, the medication may stop working to effectively relieve symptoms. This can result in a tolerance for the medication, thus making the veteran only increase the dosage to get the same relief as they did in the past.
  • Withdrawal. It is common for a veteran to feel irritable, restless, or even ill when the effects of prescription medications wear off. You may notice this type of confusion as withdrawal.
  • Changes in Behavior. Veterans that show impairments in memory, slurred speech, poor mood, low sleep quality, headaches, lack of energy, or aggression can feel like just leaving social situations. This is often a sign of dependency on medications, or an addiction.

There IS a Path to Recovery

It can seem daunting to approach recovery after returning home as a veteran, but there are proven ways to regain your life. On the road to recovery, it may seem difficult to clearly see the difference between pharmaceutical drugs, self-medicating, and addiction – but there is a path.

Just follow the mnemonic device of H.O.W.:

  • HONEST about the need for pain medication, and tolerance
  • OPEN about alternative approaches is key to managing pain and stress
  • WILLING to try new approaches to recovery matters!


  1. Garen A. Collett, Kangwon Song. Prevalence of Central Nervous System Polypharmacy and Associations with Overdose and Suicide-Related Behaviors in Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans in VA Care 2010–2011. Drugs Real World Outcomes. 2016 Mar; 3(1): 45–52.
  2. Barbara Goldberg. Opioid abuse crisis takes heavy toll on U.S. veterans. NOVEMBER 10, 2017.
  3. Emma M Seppälä, Jack B Nitschke. Breathing-Based Meditation Decreases Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in U.S. Military Veterans: A Randomized Controlled Longitudinal Study. J Trauma Stress. 2014 Aug; 27(4): 397–405.


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