Many people experiencing the occasional bout of anxiety or insomnia may have been prescribed medications known as benzodiazepines, which act to calm the nervous system via the anti-anxiety brain hormone GABA.
These medications often take effect very quickly, and last a matter of hours before they are out of the system. This makes them quite effective for stressful situations, anxiety or panic attacks. They may be helpful for the nervous airplane flier. They can help someone handle situations such as divorce, death in the family, and more.
While the occasional use of these drugs is generally considered safe, and often quite needed in the moment, they are also controlled substances with a higher addiction rate and abuse potential.
In 2000, the American Psychiatry Association stated that 11-15 percent of the American adult population had used a benzodiazepine medication at least once in the preceding year.
This is interesting, as the National Alliance on Mental illness reports that anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States, with 20 percent of the population experiencing some form of anxiety at any given moment. This includes generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic and phobias.
One does not have to have an actual anxiety diagnosis in order to be prescribed an anti-anxiety medication.
Due to their fast-acting symptom relief coupled with serious addiction potential, people do not want to give up their benzodiazepines. Anxiety — and insomnia, which is another common reason for their use — are not positive experiences for anyone therefore those who suffer from such symptoms crave and appreciate immediate relief.
Beginning in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other watch groups, have been noticing an alarming trend with the prescription of opioid medications for pain coupled with benzodiazepines.
In fact, the CDC states that for every 100 people in the United States, 82.5 were prescribed an opioid, and 37.6 were prescribed a benzodiazepine.
In 2011, there were 16,917 overdose deaths involving opioid pain medications also involved a benzodiazepine in 31 percent of cases.
In addition, in 27.2 percent of benzodiazepine abuse and 18.5 percent of opioid abuse emergency room visits, alcohol was found to be involved as well. This means Americans are mixing pain and anxiety meds with alcohol on a regular basis.
Due to the massive addictive quality of these medications for those who take them daily or several times per week, it is heavily advised that people do not stop “cold turkey.” Instead, they should talk with their health care providers about support and a weaning time line.
Be aware that withdrawal symptoms can occur due to the effects these medications have on the brain. Fortunately, help as well as other options for anxiety, insomnia and pain management, are available.
Sometimes those who are addicted find in discussing the situation with their healthcare provider that they don’t actually need the medication for the original symptom anymore. Due to the addiction, they have come to rely on it for regular use like a security blanket.
Help is available. Don’t delay.
Reviewed March 24, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vital Signs: Variation Among States in Prescribing of Opioid Pain Relievers and Benzodiazepines – United States, 2012. (2014).
2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Involvement in Opioid Pain Reliever and Benzodiazepine Drug Abuse–Related Emergency Department Visits and Drug-Related Deaths — United States, 2010.
3) Longo L and Johnson, B. (2000). Benzodiazepines – Side Effects, Abuse Risk and Alternatives.
4) National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2012). Anxiety Disorders Fact Sheet.