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Zoloft Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment Options

Dr. Ted Bender, Ph.D., LCDC

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Ted Bender, Ph.D., LCDC

April 16, 2019

Zoloft is a selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) prescribed to individuals to treat symptoms of depression. This drug may be abused by individuals seeking relief from mental health issues, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop taking Zoloft.

What Is Zoloft?

Zoloft is the brand name for sertraline, an SSRI antidepressant used to treat a number of mental health and mood disorders in adults. Zoloft has been shown to improve and help regulate thoughts, mood, appetite, sleep, and energy levels in individuals struggling with some of the following diagnoses:

  • major depressive disorder
  • panic disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • social anxiety disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • premenstrual dysphoric disorder

Zoloft is available in both pill and liquid form. Sertraline is also approved to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in children six and older.

How Does Zoloft Work?

As with other SSRIs, Zoloft increases the amount of available serotonin in the brain. This does not mean that an SSRI creates more serotonin. Instead, Zoloft works on neurons in the brain responsible for controlling the release and reuptake of serotonin. Specifically, it lessens the reuptake of serotonin, making higher levels of serotonin available in the brain.

When more serotonin is available in the brain, it has been shown to improve mood and lessen symptoms associated with depression and other mood disorders. If a person attributes these changes to simply taking Zoloft, they may begin to abuse Zoloft in an attempt to create more of these positive effects.

Zoloft Abuse

Taking Zoloft in a way other than prescribed is considered substance abuse. This includes altering dosage amount or how often a person takes Zoloft, or continuing to take Zoloft after the prescribed time frame.

A person may take higher doses of Zoloft in an attempt to increase the positive results of Zoloft. If they believe that one pill improves their symptoms, then maybe two would be even better. This is one of the symptoms of a budding psychological addiction and increases the likelihood of physical dependence.

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Approximately ⅕ of people who stop taking Zoloft experience withdrawal symptoms, or “discontinuation syndrome”. This is a result of the body being physically dependent on the medication, and not necessarily an indication of abuse or addiction.

Symptoms of Zoloft withdrawal can mimic severe flu-like symptoms as well as blurred vision, insomnia, and dizziness. Additionally, a person experiencing Zoloft withdrawal may experience thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

Continuing to take Zoloft to avoid withdrawal, would be considered Zoloft abuse, and a precursor to Zoloft addiction.

Is Zoloft Addictive?

There is supporting evidence of psychological addiction to Zoloft. Addiction is a powerful disease that manipulates the mind into believing it needs something specific in order to function. Addiction to prescription medications can develop quickly, especially when a person experiences positive effects from the drug or physical withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop the medication. Zoloft does both.

Therapeutically effective doses of Zoloft range from 25 mg to 200 mg. Studies have indicated that therapeutic doses of Zoloft primarily affect serotonin, but also have weak effects on norepinephrine and dopamine. Abusing high doses of Zoloft could theoretically trigger a potential for addiction, as dopamine plays a key role in addiction.

Liquid forms of sertraline contain alcohol. Alcohol is one of the most accepted, abused, and addictive substances in the world. If a person is abusing Zoloft, they may be at additional risk for addiction if they are abusing high levels of liquid Zoloft.

Zoloft does not have a high risk for addiction, however that does not mean that it is not addictive. With the right circumstances and timing, almost any substance that makes a person feel good has the risk of becoming an addiction. Zoloft is no different. This is why it is important to take Zoloft exactly as prescribed.

Zoloft Addiction Symptoms

A person who is addicted to Zoloft may experience insomnia, paranoia, depression, aggression, and anxiety. It is not unusual for a person who is addicted to Zoloft to have high amounts of serotonin in their system, putting them at risk for serotonin syndrome.

Serotonin syndrome (SS) is a group of symptoms that are provoked by ingesting too much of any drug that increases serotonin levels in the brain to toxic levels. Common characteristics of SS are changes in mental status, rhythmic muscle spasms, and issues with autonomic function. Serotonin syndrome can be fatal if left untreated.

Side effects of Zoloft seem to be more intense than with other SSRIs. These side effects can be more severe when a person is addicted to Zoloft:

  • decreased appetite
  • vomiting
  • irritability
  • sexual dysfunction
  • nervousness
  • headache
  • sweating
  • muscle spasms

Severe side effects require immediate medical attention, such as seizures, heart arrhythmias, muscle stiffness, and extreme disorientation. Cases of liver damage have occurred with long-term Zoloft abuse.

Zoloft Addiction Treatment Options

A person who is struggling with Zoloft addiction will probably experience symptoms of withdrawal, or discontinuation syndrome. Seeking substance abuse treatment that can help ease those symptoms and discontinue Zoloft is an important step in rehabilitation.

A program that begins with a medically supervised detox program can provide medical professionals who will monitor and treat symptoms as they occur. In addition, they are capable of reducing the dosage of Zoloft slowly, in a method referred to as tapering, to lessen the severity of the symptoms associated with withdrawal.

Once the client has stopped Zoloft, they can continue on to a treatment program that can help explore their substance abuse problem and provide treatment for the co-occurring diagnosis they were originally taking Zoloft for in the beginning. We can help locate resources to start the journey toward a substance abuse free lifestyle, contact us today.

Food and Drug Administration - Zoloft Label

Ferri’s Clinical Advisor 2017 - Serotonin Syndrome

National Library of Medicine - Adult Utilization of Psychiatric Drugs and Differences by Sex, Age, and Race

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