06 May The Dark Side of Taking Anti-Anxiety Medications
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Just about everyone has to deal with the daily worries and stresses that come part and parcel with an active lifestyle. Life is hard, a rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs, joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failures until we reach that inevitable end. While no one is immune to these pressures, some are better able to manage and disperse stress than others.
For those who fall into the latter category, where your stress consumes your waking thoughts, leaving you in a constant state of unease, you very well could be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a general phrase that encompasses a series of disorders that cause people to feel fear, worry, stress or apprehension.
Anxiety disorders can alter how you act, think, and feel and can cause your body to enter a state of panic where you exhibit physical symptoms such as muscle tension, inability to breathe, a pounding heart, sweating, an upset stomach, or headaches. Such anxiety can vary from minor cases to severe. People who deal with mild stress, while uncomfortable, are usually able to cope without professional or pharmacological assistance, however, for those suffering from severe anxiety, their everyday lives are carried out in a constant of worry.
For those with severe anxiety, professional help and the assistance of anxiety medication may be the only way to combat their stress. While such medicine can be life-changing, as with most other drugs, there is a dark side to regularly taking anxiety medications. Because of this, the decision to take benzos should not be made flippantly. Instead, the benefits of the drug should be weighed against the potential negative ramifications.
What is Benzodiazepine?
Most major anti-depressants fall within the benzodiazepine family. Benzodiazepines work by stimulating the brain’s receptors for the chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter primarily responsible for affecting mood, sleep, anxiety and pain sensitivity. Odds are you have heard of the benzodiazepines alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan). Benzos are amongst the most regularly prescribed drugs in the world, with Xanax being the fourth most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S.
What is Buspirone?
Buspirone hydrochloride tablets were created as a less potent stress reliever, made to help with short-term relief of anxiety symptoms. They are not chemically or pharmacologically related to benzos, or other anxiolytic medicines. While their potency and addictive qualities are less than Benzos, they are not free of possible adverse side effects.
Prescribing away stress
In a country where anxiety seems as widespread as the common flu, most studies seem to agree that these medications are all too often improperly prescribed, or at the very least, overprescribed. You likely would not take a blood thinning medication before a blood check, and yet every year, millions of Americans are regularly prescribed the medicines without an actual diagnosis of anxiety.
The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that roughly one in four Americans who were prescribed Benzos received such medication without a real anxiety diagnosis. Rather, they have mood issues or sleep issues, and they want those masked or covered up instead of actually addressing those issues. Despite its widespread use, or perhaps in spite of it, benzos are dangerous, especially if used long-term, with the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry estimating that those who use anti-anxiety medications have a 36% increased mortality risk.
Without a doubt, there are some people who absolutely need anti-anxiety medications to function at all, however, all too commonly we see a trend of doctors and patients treating these drugs lightly. To make matters worse, anxiety medications can cause paradoxical effects where anxiety symptoms worsen, rather than improving. In some cases, they can even increase anxiety and send you into a tailspin.
Immediate Side Effects of Anti-Anxiety Medicines
When taken in the prescribed dose and frequency, anti-anxiety medication performs a vital function to release body tension and decrease anxiety. However, there are plenty of side-effects that many do not consider when taking their medication. These side-effects are enhanced the more significant the dose or, the higher the frequency. They include: sexual dysfunction, constipation, decreased libido, depression, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, mood swings, problems with memory, seizures, shortness of breath, skin rashes, weight gain.
Special Risk Factors for Anti Anxiety Drugs
Specific groups of people who use anti anxiety medication or antidepressant medication for their mental illness will face anxiety medication side effects that can ultimately be more negative than a regular user.
These specific groups include:
- Pregnant and Breastfeeding women – Taking benzodiazepine, seen in antidepressant medication, during pregnancy can cause dependency in the developing baby and withdrawal symptoms in the baby after birth. Benzodiazepine can also be excreted in breast milk. However, if necessary, talk to a medical professional about taking the proper prescription medication dosage throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- People over 65 – The older you become, the more sensitive you are to the sedating effects of benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepine, regardless of the amount taken, can cause physical impacts such as increased risk of falls, broken bones, and car accidents for older people. Be sure to consult with a medical professional if you are taking these medications and over the age of 65.
- People with a history of substance abuse – Because benzodiazepine is addictive on its own, it is dangerous to combine with other substances such as alcohol or other drugs. People with a history of substance abuse should be extremely cautious while taking these anti anxiety or antidepressant medication.
Addiction to Anxiety Medicines
Because of how commonly anti-depressants are prescribed, patients tend to forget that there can be severe ramifications to taking the drugs. Many operate under the false assumption that since the drug is legal and given to them by a doctor, then they must be okay to use. This type of mindset is precisely why there is such a massive issue of abuse of legal drugs within this country. Aside from other side-effects, Xanax addiction should be the foremost concern for anyone regularly using anti-anxiety medicines.
As the brain becomes more and more accustomed to the presence of the drug, tolerance builds up, which down regulates the brain’s sensitivity to GABA. Therefore, you will not only need more of the anti-anxiety medication to receive the same feeling or benefit but also, your anxiety’s floor without the drug also increases. So, without it, you feel even worse and have an even more difficult time coping with anxiety or stress.
For some individuals, the signs you have a Xanax problem will begin to show quite quickly. Doctors estimate that a habit or addiction to anti-anxiety medication can form within two weeks of regular use; this addiction could happen even quicker if you exceed the recommended dose or frequency. Repeated exposure to benzos over time eventually will lead to the brain becoming physically dependent on the drug to function regularly. At this point, your anti-anxiety use is compulsory.
Ideally, anti-anxieties are meant to aid other stress-relieving practices, rather than being the sole means of relief. Unfortunately, however, quite often a patient will walk into a doctor’s office, complain about lack of sleep or stress and then walk out with an anti-anxiety prescription. Instead of attempting to deal with what causes stress or anxiety, many doctors will jump to a solution and prescribe medication. This should not be a surprise; we are a culture that loves a quick fix. Unfortunately, though, that quick fix often does not solve the issue in the long run, and when a person gets off their anxiety meds, they have no coping skills.
Consequences of Anti-Depressant Use
Doctors warn that regularly taking one of the different types of Xanax for as short a time as four months can cause irreversible harm. Studies have found that anti-depressants produce long-term, and for some, permanent structural and chemical changes to the brain the body, especially since they elevate cortisol levels. The most common long-term side effect is memory impairment, specifically to the brain’s short-term memory center. Other commonly seen long-term side-effects of anti-depressant use include: cognitive deficits, delirious states, depression, psychotic experiences, and aggressive and impulsive behavior.
Anti-depressants elevate cortisol levels within the body. Elevated cortisol levels are commonly associated with depression, weight gain, immune dysfunction. A handful of studies found that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease increased by a third for people who regularly used benzos for 3-6 months. This shocking number more than doubled for those who used Xanax longer than that six-month point.
While this should be obvious, many neglect to consider the ramifications of masking their pain or anxiety with opiates or benzos, nor do they think about how this only serves to blunt their coping skills. Consider a weight lifter, in order to lift heavier weights, a person has to progressively move up the weight scale. This involves the muscles in the body needing to experience tearing before they can build up tissue to aid with the lifting of even heavier weights.
In the same way, psychological hardship allows our brain and character to grow as we go through hard times. Take, for example, childhood. Part of a child’s experience growing up is learning to deal with pain- a scraped knee, a bully on the playground, the death of a pet. While all of these experiences can seem traumatic to a child, allowing them to deal with these situations is an important part of socialization that prepares them for adulthood and the pain that is an integral aspect of life. Although it is completely natural to want to protect them from hardship, to put them in a bubble and stow them away from the world, a good parent allows them to learn from pain and then grow past it.
In the same way, due to long-term use, anti-anxiety users quite often become completely reliant upon their drug to cope. Instead of processing the trauma, stress, or loss in their life, they turn to their pills to push down those feelings. By neglecting to address the underlying issues, a person will emotionally stunt themselves and quickly discover that they are now worse at dealing with anxiety than ever before. Anti-anxiety medications, when used in conjunction with therapy and other healthy stress relievers, can be a fantastic thing.
However, if used as the sole means of masking stress, a person will likely grow addicted or turn to other drugs to feel better. To make matters even worse, studies agree that some regular anti-depressant users put themselves at risk of developing suicidal thoughts or actions as a result of their drug use. A 2005 study titled, “Antidepressant drug use and the risk of suicide,” found that those who used anti-depressants were two to four times higher to develop suicidal thoughts than those in the placebo group. This result was seen in both teenagers and adults and seems to indicate that the alleviation of short-term suffering might not be worth the potential long-term melancholy.
Dangers of Overdose
Anti-anxiety medicines by themselves are rarely seen in overdoses, barring taking an exceedingly large dose. However, benzos are regularly found in the cases of opiate and alcohol overdoses with some form of anti-anxiety medicine found in one out of every three fatal overdoses. According to the CDC, roughly three-fourths of overdoses that involve benzos include other narcotics. A big part of this is the doubling down effect of combining two central nervous system depressants. In fact, 2016 saw some 9,000 Americans die a benzo-related death. So, if you have been prescribed Xanax, do everything in your power to avoid mixing it with another drug, legal or not, or with alcohol. Sadly, many individuals taking these drugs are unaware of the true dangers of mixing Xanax and alcohol together.
Alternative anxiety coping mechanisms
Although there is no one magical cure-all for anxiety and mood issues, there are a handful of healthy coping mechanisms one struggling with anxiety can use to regain control of their life. Homeopathic remedies for anxiety treatment include:
- Regular exercise – start walking, running, swimming, lifting weights, hiking or biking. Join a sports club, a rec league, a yoga studio, or Pilates class. Regular exercise helps release endorphins and dopamine into the brain, the body’s natural happy medicine. Such activities not only help your body function optimally and stay healthy, but it also relieves stress. Spend at least 45 minutes a day sweating, breathing heavily and working your muscles, lungs, and the heart. The single-mindedness required to push through pain or discomfort can help you forget about whatever it is that causes you anxiety.
- Find healthy distractions – with anxiety, often your thoughts tend to spiral and you fixate on negative thoughts. Like positive thoughts, healthy distractions get your mind off that spiral of anxiety. Pick up a hobby, join a club, read a great book, spend time with friends or family, volunteer somewhere, serve your community, learn a language. Whatever you do, getting your mind off your worries can help prevent you from needing benzos to feel better.
- Hang out with the right people – Surround yourself with positive, healthy and active people. You are who you spend time with, so find people who will help you become a better person. People who will help you conquer your stress or anxiety and will work with you, support you and aid you in your journey.
- Consider therapy – As mentioned earlier, if you continually repress your anxiety with anti-anxiety medication, you will likely never overcome such issues. Discussing these feelings is one of the best ways to understand them and then grow from them. If you wish for a private one on one session and do not feel comfortable discussing such matters with family or friends, then maybe you should seek help from a therapist. In this safe setting, you can really delve into the underlying causes of your worries. Another alternative would be to join some sort of group, be it AA or an anxiety disorder group. Learning and hearing from others similar struggles can be hugely helpful.
- Consider rehab– If you find yourself unable to free yourself from your regular Benzo routine or realize that you cannot function normally without your daily medicine, then perhaps rehab is the safest route for you long-term wellbeing. Some people pass the point of no return and need professional help in order to fight their addiction. If this is you, reach out immediately to a medical professional and carefully weigh the pros and cons of inpatient or outpatient detox.
It is very common for people to use medication to help suppress the negative symptoms that intensify because of mental illness. There is no doubt that when required, benzos can help calm a person’s internal storms and prevent a potentially harmful situation. When used as intended, they can be lifesavers. Benzos can help people who struggle with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, severe anxiety, panic disorder (PD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts, etc. However, many neglect to consider the dark sides of taking anti-depressants, especially those who do not need them. There are many long-term effects of xanax abuse, making it a dangerous drug to even become involved with if you don’t really need it. So, if you are prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, be wary and work on developing healthy coping mechanisms in order to protect yourself in the long run.
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Pittman, Catherine. “The Truth Behind Medication for Anxiety.” Anxiety.org. 13 Sep. 2016. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.anxiety.org/weighing-pros-cons-of-antianxiety-medication
LeDoux, Joseph. “What’s Wrong with Antianxiety Drugs? Psychology Today. 16 Aug. 2016. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/i-got-mind-tell-you/201508/whats-wrong-antianxiety-drugs