Benzodiazepines are very common in modern society for treating people with anxiety. Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin among others are used widely and effectively, to the point that the National Institute on Drug Abuse says 13.5 million people filled a prescription for one of the medications in 2013. And that number grew drastically from 8.1 million in 1996.
While benzos are a highly effective short-term resolution for anxiety, their also potentially dangerous to longterm health, with up to 44 percent of benzo users developing a dependency on them. Knowing this, it’s also important to understand how these drugs affect your brain and how and why the use of them sometimes goes wrong.
Stephen Taylor, the chief medical officer at Pathway Healthcare in Birmingham, Alabama and the medical director of the Player Assistance/Anti-Drug Program of the National Basketball Association compares the use of benzodiazepines to drinking, offering a quick but temporary relief of anxiety. They create a calming effect when they affect the brain’s GABA receptor, a neurotransmitter that works to suppress nerve activity.
“These medications have limited duration of effect and people often feel even more anxious after the medication wears off,” says David Hu, the medical director at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches in Florida. “This can lead to people taking the medication continuously to avoid feeling anxious.”
This can lead patients to lower the threshold for which they decide to take anxiety medications over time. “While a patient may have taken the pill initially to prevent panic symptoms, now they’re taking it for even the mildest symptoms,” says Neeraj Gandotra, the chief medical officer at Delphi Behavioral Health Group in Florida. “They start taking it prophylactically — when they wake up, before a meeting, when they go to the grocery store.”
Now, instead of taking benzos to relieve anxiety, you’ve found yourself taking it preemptively in hopes of avoiding it. The trademark sign of having developed a dependency at this point is increasing the amount of benzos taken at a given time, consuming more to achieve the desired effect. Of course, this is different from an addiction, in which a patient starts to experience withdrawal symptoms when quitting cold turkey. Tremors, palpitations, decreased concentration and trouble sleeping, rebound anxiety, muscle stiffness and pain and visual hallucinations are just a handful of the symptoms, and in extreme cases can lead to seizures, rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and sometimes even death if a person is taking more than three to four milligrams a day.
“Getting off benzodiazepines can be risky and should always be done with medical supervision by the prescribing doctor or doctor in another setting,” Hu said. “Addiction treatment centers and detox facilities are often staffed with doctors that specialize in detoxification from benzodiazepines and other aspects of addiction medicine.”
This means benzos should be used with caution and patients should be aware of family history of addictions, drinking problems, and so on and ultimately, they should really only be used on a temporary basis when treating anxiety.