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Should Anxiety Be Treated With Benzodiazepines? What Are the Alternatives?

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are a class of prescription medications that are primarily used to treat anxiety, but they can also be prescribed to treat panic disorders, seizures, and insomnia, as well as alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Benzos are also sometimes administered to sedate people before they have operations or diagnostic procedures done because of the anxiety they feel before going into surgery.

Scientists are not sure exactly how benzos work on your brain, though they do know that they interact with neurotransmitters such as gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is responsible for inhibiting neural activity in your brain. People who struggle with anxiety or seizure disorders may have excessive neural activity. By increasing the effects of GABA in the brain, benzodiazepines help to calm the nervous system.

Benzodiazepines for Anxiety

Benzos are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States, and anxiety is the most frequent condition they are prescribed to treat. Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the country, affecting more than 18 percent of adults every year. Despite the high rates of positive treatment outcomes for anxiety, fewer than 37 percent of people struggling with anxiety receive treatment.
For people who do seek treatment for anxiety disorders, benzos are frequently prescribed. Their calming effects can be felt relatively quickly, whether they are taken daily or only as-needed.

Common benzos prescribed for the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders include:

Common Benzos

  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Valium (clonazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)

Prescriptions for benzodiazepines must be highly individualized, as they are known to be habit-forming. Therefore, it is recommended to begin patients on minimal doses until an effective therapeutic dose is reached. It is not recommended to take benzos for more than a few months, however, as dependence is likely to occur. Once you have developed a dependence on benzos, you will need to gradually taper off them to avoid experiencing unpleasant and dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

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Risks of Using Benzos to Treat Anxiety

The greatest risk of using benzos to treat anxiety is the chance of developing dependence on and addiction to the medication. Tolerance is likely to form within your first few days or weeks of benzo use. Dependence, however, indicates a physical and/or emotional reliance on the drug that usually occurs after a few months of daily use.
Once you have developed dependence, it is important to be very cautious about how you reduce your benzo intake. Your doctor can help you make a tapering plan to gradually wean you off the drug. It is important to taper off the prescription to ensure a safe withdrawal process and to ensure that your drug use does not progress to addiction.

Risks associated with long-term benzo use include:

Risks Associated with Long-Term Benzo Use

  • Dependence and addiction
  • Experience of adverse side effects
  • Overdose
  • Dangerous interactions with other medications and alcohol
  • Return and worsening of anxiety symptoms when you stop taking benzos
  • Prescription drug misuse

Misuse of benzodiazepines begins when people take more than their doctor recommended, take them for longer than they intended to, or are only using them for recreational reasons. The misuse of prescription medications has led to a national health crisis in the United States. Opioid painkillers and anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, are the most commonly abused drugs.

The potential for misuse of benzos is of great concern. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 6,500 people died from an overdose that involved benzodiazepines, and 124,000-plus people were admitted to emergency rooms in 2010 as a result of benzodiazepine-related complications. Part of this misuse is due to a history of doctors overprescribing medications as quick fixes for conditions like anxiety. In 2011, 127 million prescriptions were filled for benzos.

Alternative Anxiety Treatments

In addition to medications and therapy, there are many well-studied and effective alternative treatments for anxiety available. Even if you are taking anti-anxiety medication, enhancing your treatment with natural remedies and lifestyle changes can be beneficial. Always consult your doctor before taking any herbal supplements, however, as some herbs can interact with prescription medications.

Natural alternatives that can help manage anxiety include:

  • Exercise

    Exercise is known to reduce anxious energy and support physical and mental health.

  • Meditation

    Mediation promotes mindfulness and can help to slow racing thoughts.

  • Yoga

    Relaxation exercises learned through yoga can teach you how to relax unconsciously tightened muscles, thereby reducing stress.

  • Writing

    Keeping a journal or doing creative writing can help people to express their feelings and cope with their anxiety better.

  • Aromatherapy

    The calming scent of plant oils, particularly lavender, helps some people to feel less stress and anxiety.

  • Cannabidiol oil

    Derived from the marijuana plant, but without the active ingredient that produces a high, early research shows that CBD oil may significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic.

  • Herbal supplements

    For centuries, herbal supplements, like chamomile, valerian, passion flower, and St. John’s wort, have been used in ancient Chinese medicinal practices to relieve anxieties.

The above is not an exclusive list of alternative treatments for anxiety. If you are struggling with symptoms of anxiety and would like treatment comes without the risks associated with benzodiazepine use, there are many options available. Benzos play a key medical role for many people, but you just might be able to gain control over your anxiety through a combination of safer alternatives.

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