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How Anxiety Treatment Turns Into Addiction

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With overdose rates rising, many lawmakers and medical professionals have turned their attention toward opioid addiction; however, perhaps at least some of that focus should be given to benzodiazepines, the most common form of anxiety treatment.

Commonly known as benzos, benzodiazepines serve many legitimate medical and psychiatric purposes. Unfortunately, we also see these same medications play active roles in prescription drug addiction. In most cases, it starts out innocently enough. Before long, however, everyday anxiety treatment may become something else entirely—sometimes without the user even realizing it.

Benzos as Anxiety Treatment

A class of mild psychoactive sedatives, benzodiazepines work by slowing the processes of the central nervous system. This enables physicians to use them when treating many physical symptoms such as seizures and muscle spasms. Many also take them for insomnia, as the reduced activity of the nervous system makes it easier to fall asleep. Since the central nervous system controls thought processes in addition to bodily sensations, benzos also help ease the racing thoughts associated with general anxiety disorder.

Most Common Benzodiazepines
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Valium (diazepam)

The popularity of benzodiazepines began growing in the 1960s and 1970s, when many clamored for a new source of sedation. Prior to the use of benzos, physicians often treated anxiety with barbiturates. Not unlike the manner in which heroin was created to be a less addictive form of morphine, doctors turned to benzodiazepines because barbiturates often led to chemical dependence.

Many cite the fast-acting nature of benzos as one of their primary benefits, but different medications will naturally vary. For instance, Xanax takes effect quickly but only lasts a relatively short time. Ativan has a similar onset and duration, making it useful for panic attacks but not necessarily generalized anxiety treatment. Klonopin and Valium last much longer.

Spiraling into Drug Addiction

Pain patients who become addicted to opioids frequently describe the onset of addiction in a very specific way. It starts with the relief of physical pain, but over time they notice that emotional pain subsides as well. In the case of benzodiazepines used in anxiety treatment, relieving emotional pain is already the primary goal. Those who find the medication to be effective may begin taking more whenever they feel a need to boost that sense of relief.

To those who use benzos in this way, it doesn’t necessarily feel like addiction. When you have a mild headache, you might only take one or even half an ibuprofen. For worse headaches, you might take more than typically suggested. Likewise, many will adjust their intake of anxiety medications to suit the level of anxiety they currently feel. This goes against the physician’s recommendations, but still makes sense from the user’s perspective.

As the patient increases their use, they may decide to routinely ingest more than prescribed rather than waiting around for their anxiety to worsen. They do not even realize that their behavior has spiraled into addiction. Only if they are taken off the medication might this become clear, when they find themselves seeking their drugs from less respectable sources. Some may even steal from a family member, shop around for doctors who will prescribe more, or simply turn to alcohol and other drugs to substitute the relief they’re no longer getting from benzodiazepines. Whether they turn to other drugs or continue using benzos, those who use compulsively are putting themselves at great risk.

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The Dangers of Continued Use

We noted earlier that benzos may deserve some of the spotlight currently cast on the opioid epidemic. This becomes clearer when looking at overdose rates. While the sheer number of opioid-related deaths remains higher than that of deaths related to benzos, their rate of ascent differs greatly. Between 2001 and 2014, benzo-related deaths increased at a far more drastic pace than the rates of death for both heroin and prescription opioids combined. Furthermore, many who overdose on opioids do not overdose on opioids alone. Medical examiners often find benzodiazepines in the victim’s system—unsurprising, since mixing the two significantly raises the risk of fatality.

Those who compulsively abuse benzodiazepines, especially in combination with alcohol or other drugs, must seek alternatives. Many non-addictive medications may treat anxiety. Experts also note the benefits of alternative options such as meditation, massage therapy, and other forms of holistic therapy that slow the central nervous system by activating the parasympathetic mind. With these treatments in place, you must no longer make the choice between addiction and anxiety. Treat both, and choose health instead.

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