Five per cent of adults are prescribed anti-anxiety medication like Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan and Valium each year. Prolonged use of these benzodiazepines can lead to dependency and addiction. What are the risks associated with benzo dependency, and how can you deal with the withdrawal symptoms?
‘Benzos’ are commonly prescribed by doctors to give temporary relief to sufferers of anxiety and insomnia, but prolonged consumption can eventually make the underlying problem worse. Dependency and addiction are all too common with this growing yet little talked about epidemic, and withdrawal can result in uncontrollable emotional responses and – in acute cases – death.
In fact, an estimated 11 per cent of US citizens are prescribed anti-anxiety medication every year, and 9 per cent of seniors aged 65 and over take benzos regularly. These include Xanax, Ativan and Valium, and despite the astonishing rate at which people are prescribed the drugs, little is currently being done to address the widespread problem of benzodiazepine addiction.
Benzo withdrawal symptoms are highly uncomfortable and can be dangerous, but are manageable with treatment. We will explore the risks and withdrawal symptoms associated with benzos, as well as the strategies to cope.
Recognising the Signs of Benzodiazepine Dependency
Many people believe that only the illegal consumption and abuse of benzos can result in addiction, but even people who are prescribed anxiety medication are at risk of developing dependency. Those who have become addicted to benzos may seek them out by other means – or turn to street drugs – once their prescription has run out. If you have noticed your benzo use increasing, now might be the time to reach out for help.
The Risks of Benzo Addiction and Withdrawal
At prescribed doses in short-term users, the side effects of benzos are usually limited to dizziness and drowsiness, though most users do not experience any negative side effects at all. In rare cases, as with all drugs, side effects can be much worse for those who have an allergic reaction. However, prolonged or high doses of benzos often have much more noticeable and detrimental effects, such as confusion, dizziness and blurred vision at best and muscle weakness, difficulty breathing and coma at worst.
In chronic users, the signs of benzo abuse differ from person to person, but can manifest as strained relationships, deteriorated work performance and rapid mood changes. After time, the drugs lead to increased anxiety, insomnia and headaches, the same symptoms benzos are purposed to alleviate.
Abstaining from benzos can result in negative symptoms for chronic users who may have developed a psychological or physical addiction, including:
- Increased tension
- Sleep disturbance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle pain
- Panic attacks
- Psychotic reactions
Benzo withdrawal can initially be very uncomfortable and even quite dangerous in more extreme cases, with symptoms including seizures, coma and even death. People attempting to quit long-term benzo use should consult their doctor and seek professional treatment. Ideally, quitting benzodiazepines should be done at a qualified addiction treatment facility. In addition to seeking treatment, here are some techniques to help you deal with withdrawal symptoms.
Dealing with Benzo Withdrawal
This is one of the most unpleasant side effects of benzo withdrawal – you may feel soreness, shooting pain, muscle spasms, twitching, tenseness, jaw clenching, heart palpitations, tremors or migraines. The best remedy for this, though it may seem counterintuitive, is to stay moderately active to the extent that you are able. Try light exercise like walking and yoga. Taking a warm bath or shower and wearing loose-fitting, comfortable clothing can also help.
Research now shows a link between benzodiazepines and cognitive impairment. Functions like speaking, reading, writing and coordination may become more difficult during benzo withdrawal. Start with small tasks like journaling, singing a song or playing catch and build upon those until you return to normal.
Insomnia is one of the hardest withdrawal symptoms to deal with, as a lack of sleep can increase irritability and negative emotions. You may have sleeplessness, nightmares or wake up at irregular times throughout the night. Your sleep cycle will take some time to return to normal. Try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity during the day, make sure to disconnect from your devices an hour before bedtime and try aromatherapy like pillow sprays to soothe yourself. Drinking warm milk or chamomile tea can provide comfort and act as a natural and restorative sleep aid.
Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Benzodiazepines are prescribed for anxiety, but ironically, long-term use often leads to an increase in severe panic attacks when users attempt to stop. In the midst of a panic attack, try breathing exercises – breathe in for a count of four, out for a count of four – to curb hyperventilation. Alternatively, breathe into a paper bag. By staying in the situation that is giving you anxiety (if you can) and ‘acting normal’, you will eventually teach your brain that there’s actually nothing to panic about.
Cultivating a meditation practice is ideal in the longer term, as this will help you regain control over your thought patterns and shift more easily into a relaxed state. You can start with things like daily affirmations, or try an app with short guided meditations like Stop, Breathe & Think.
You may also experience moderate to severe depression. Some people also experience suicidal thoughts. This may be just a chemical reaction in your brain, but it may also be a reaction to a situation in your life that you did not address head-on while self-medicating with benzos, or (likely) a combination of both. If you are feeling suicidal, reach out to a friend, family member or help hotline immediately. And remember, there is no shame in seeking professional treatment.