The prescription anti-anxiety medications called benzodiazepines are the most widely prescribed types of drug in all age ranges in the United States and Canada. But evidence shows these drugs can be have dangerous side effects, and that they are over-prescribed despite not being intended for long-term use. Doctors may make it seem that Xanax or Ativan is an answer for your anxiety, but the reality is that in the long run, these medications may do more harm than good. Here’s the truth about benzodiazepines for anxiety.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs with sedative, anti-convulsant, muscle-relaxing and anti-anxiety properties. Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for anxiety and panic attacks, but they are also used for seizures, insomnia, and alcohol dependence/withdrawal. This class of medications includes the following drugs:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
Risks of Benzodiazepines
In 2010, the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry reported that those using anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, face nearly a 40% increase in the likelihood of an untimely death. While these drugs are necessary in some situations, and are relatively safe when taken in moderate does for short periods of time, this is unfortunately not the case in too many instances. Instead, many become reliant on the relief benzodiazepine provide and never learn how to better handle their anxiety.
Benzodiazepines bind to GABA receptors in the brain, enhancing the effects of GABA (or Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), which is is a neurotransmitter that produces a calming effect in the body. These medications are extremely effective at slowing down the central nervous system, temporarily relieving anxiety symptoms.
However, this short-term relief comes with a number of common side effects, including drowsiness, low energy, slowed reflexes, lack of coordination, slurred speech, blurred vision, confusion, dizziness, lightheadedness, memory loss, and possible nausea. These side effects make it quite dangerous to drive while under the influence of benzodiazepines, and the lack of coordination that can result from their use can prove particularly hazardous for the elderly.
While the possible side effects of benzodiazepines may be manageable enough if you are taking them responsibly for short periods of time, the long-term side effects may give you pause. They include depression and suicidal thoughts, mood swings, impaired cognitive function, decrease in sleep quality (and dependence on the medication in order to sleep at all), impaired judgment, and worsening mental and physical health.
Additionally, the risk of dependence and addiction must not be ignored, and the likelihood for experiencing withdrawal symptoms is high if the medication is suddenly stopped. If you have had substance abuse issues in the past, know that benzodiazepines can be extremely addictive, and taking them may put you at risk for dependence. It is also important to note that it can be very dangerous to mix benzodiazepines with other drugs or alcohol because it increases the risk of an overdose. Benzodiazepines should be taken with extreme precaution by the elderly, who have the least to gain from the medications and face the most serious consequences, such as increased dependence risk, declining mental function, and greater risk of potentially fatal accidents.
There is also the risk of benzodiazepines producing paradoxical effects, or the appearance of the very symptoms the medication was prescribed to relieve in the first place. Paradoxical effects include:
- Rage and hostility
Are They Worth It?
It is clear that the short-term and long-term risks and side effects of benzodiazepines are many. Ideally, benzodiazepines would be a person’s last resort when evaluating anxiety treatments. In an article for Psychology Today, naturopath doctor Peter Bongiorno discusses a phenomenon he sees in his practice – patients who suffer from blunted coping abilities as a result of long-term benzodiazepine use.
“When you lift a heavy weight, there is muscle tearing and growth that happens which helps you the next time you lift that burden,” said Bongiorno. “Psychological difficulty and experience affords the same growth of our brain when we traverse challenging times. It seems the drugs do not allow this learning to happen.”
Before turning to prescription medications, we encourage you to first explore other treatments for taking control of you anxiety, such as improving the nutritional intake of your diet, regularly exercising, and considering natural supplements and herbs for anxiety.