Can I Be Addicted to My Anxiety Medication?

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Can I Be Addicted to My Anxiety Medication?

Anxiety Medication AddictionAnxiety disorders are increasingly gaining recognition in recent years.  Of course, this recognition is because of the debilitating effects they can have on individuals, families, and workplace productivity. Affecting over 40 million Americans, anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the United States.  Plus, the anxiety medication that is recognized as the best pharmacological treatment for anxiety disorders, benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin, present doctors with an additional problem. The misuse and abuse of these addictive anxiety medications can create a dangerous physical dependency. In fact, this dependency has led to an alarming 300% increase in patients checking into drug treatment facilities.  Ironically, they enter these facilities to treat dependence on the medication initially prescribed to help improve their lives.

The Rise of Anxiety

As we have adapted from a hunter-gatherer species to a life of relative safety inside homes that protect us from the dangers of weather, animals, and other humans, our adaptive processes have failed to keep pace with the results of human ingenuity. As a result, the vestige of our primitive brains that once alerted our ancestors to the threat posed by a wolf pack outside their campsite has gone from life-saving to the arbiter of a life-crippling problem, anxiety.

No Easy Solution

Interestingly enough, most anxiety disorders are linked to hyperactivity of the primitive “fear center” of the brain known as the amygdala. In essence, the factors contributing to the onset of anxiety disorders are a myriad of genetic and developmental factors, combined with the life experiences of the individual. With such wide-ranging contributing factors, understanding the mechanics of anxiety disorders has proven incredibly difficult. By the same token, so has the development of an effective treatment for the condition. The development of anxiety medication appeared to solve these problems.  For instance, Librium and its immediate descendant, Valium are both in this class of drug.

“Mother’s Little Helper”

Valium, which is also known by its generic name diazepam, was one of the first “blockbuster” drugs that brought the idea of pharmaceutical solutions into homes across the United States. Valium was marketed mainly as a way to “reduce psychic tension” in middle-class, stay-at-home mothers. However, the drug became a cultural icon and was the focus of a hit song by the Rolling Stones. Furthermore, warning signs about the dangers of this first widely-used benzodiazepine medication started to appear early after the global demand skyrocketed. In the 1975 Vogue story “Danger Ahead! Valium – The Pill You Love Can Turn on You,” the public was alerted to the potential of the drug to cause a “far worse addiction than heroin.”

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What Are Benzodiazepines?

Before delving further into the potential risks of benzodiazepine misuse and abuse, let’s look at the drugs included in this class. The chart below includes the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines used as anxiety medication.

The drugs are listed alphabetically by generic name, with common brand names in parentheses:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Oxazepam (Serax)

Dangers of Benzodiazepines

Overall, the addictive mechanism of benzodiazepines operates in a biochemically similar way to the mechanism used by other addictive drugs like opiates and cannabis. By increasing the amount of dopamine released in the “reward center” of the brain, long-term use of the drugs can cause changes in the structure of a person’s brain, resulting in both increased tolerance and addiction.

Additionally, the drugs produce additional physical dependencies that manifest themselves in a condition known as benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome.

A patient who abruptly quits taking the anxiety medication can experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Tremors
  • Increased anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Vision changes
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis
  • Suicidal ideations

For these reasons, if you are using or abusing benzodiazepines, seek professional help when you decide to stop the medication.

Helpful vs Harmful

Given the potential harm of benzodiazepines described above, one may ask why these drugs are prescribed at all. However, the proper usage of benzodiazepines, as directed by a physician, is clinically-proven to be the best available pharmaceutical method for the treatment of severe anxiety disorders. Furthermore, when combined with a proper exercise regimen and cognitive behavioral therapy, many patients are able to overcome their anxiety disorders and learn to cope with their affliction without the use of a daily anxiety medication prescription.  Therefore, most dangers lie in the misuse or outright abuse of these medications.

While these drugs are effective at reducing anxiety and tension, everyone should take note of the FDA-required warning label that was placed on all advertisements for Valium in 1980:

Anxiety or tension associated with the stress of everyday life usually does not require treatment with an anxiolytic drug.

Do You Suspect That You or a Loved One May be Addicted?

By all means, speak to a trained expert at an inpatient treatment facility if you have concerns about someone close to you showing signs of addiction to benzodiazepines.

Some signs that this expert will likely ask about include:

  • Difficulty controlling use
  • Seeking multiple prescriptions or “doctor shopping
  • Other “drug-seeking behavior
  • Concurrent use of other addictive drugs, like alcohol
  • Preference for drug use over other activities
  • Signs of withdrawal (described above)
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Treatment for Addiction to Anxiety Medication

Due to the volatile nature of benzodiazepine withdrawal, virtually all patients suffering from benzodiazepine addiction are required to stay at a licensed inpatient facility or a hospital for the detoxification process.  After succeeding in detox, patients must also complete at least 30 days of treatment at an inpatient or outpatient treatment facility.

Due to the nature of the addiction, many patients are better served by an inpatient facility, which offers a number of advantages for this early stage of recovery:

  • Constant expert intervention
  • Structured activities built into the entire day
  • Providing and monitoring of healthy nutrition and exercise
  • A community of others facing similar challenges
  • Removal from outside triggers and drug-using friends
  • An environment focused solely on recovery and developing healthy practices for the future

In Summary

To summarize, Klonopin, Ativan, Xanax, and Valium are incredibly potent medications. Generally speaking, individuals must use these drugs properly for them to be effective. Improper use or abuse can quickly lead a person down a dangerous path. Therefore, you must remember to use your anxiety medication only as your physician directs you. Given these points, discuss alternatives with your doctor if you are uncomfortable with the risks that come with these drugs. Finally, if you suspect that you may need help with benzodiazepine addiction or know of someone close to you who may need help, do not hesitate to seek treatment from the proper resources.


  • – Management of Benzodiazepine Misuse and Dependence

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