Anxiety Medications Can Lead to Even More Worries

Anxiety Medications Can Lead to Even More Worries

Stan Starr, a 54-year-old financial consultant, goes to 12-step meetings not because of addiction to street drugs or alcohol, but because of the pills he was prescribed years ago by his psychiatrist for anxiety.

After he stopped taking Klonopin, a type of benzodiazepine, Starr found that he couldn’t sleep, his heartbeat was accelerated, he experienced terrible stomach pains, and he felt more anxious than ever. “I went through sheer living hell,” he said of the withdrawal. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”

Katie Balestra, special to the Washington Post, tells Starr’s story in her article on benzodiazepines, drugs that are often prescribed to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders, explaining that they were originally recommended as a safer alternative to barbiturates. But health professionals and consumers are reporting that drugs like Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Klonopin can lead to physical dependence, often resulting in severe withdrawal symptoms.

According to IMS Health, a health-care information company based in Norwalk, CT, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the most popular benzodiazepines, which was an increase of 10 million since 2004. A study by the Department of Veterans Affairs physicians last year showed that in 2004, 66,000 veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder received prescriptions for benzodiazepines.

While some people herald the benefits of benzodiazepines, others say they are over-prescribed and can come with serious side effects. Some patients become tolerant to the drugs, so they take higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect. This can lead to physical and psychological dependence.

Stephanie Licata, a Harvard Medical School behavioral pharmacologist who studies benzodiazepines, explained that the drugs tell your brain to slow down, creating a calming effect. But for some people, this can lead to memory loss and impaired motor skills.

Withdrawing from benzodiazepines can be similar to withdrawing from heroin, with people experiencing hallucinations, seizures, and even death.

Some doctors say that the vast majority of their patients do just fine on the drugs, however. Robert DuPont, former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who has written several books on addiction and anxiety, said the drugs are widely successful in treating panic and anxiety. He said that 90 percent of his patients have no difficulty taking the medicine, and those with problems are most likely to be people who’ve had issues with addiction in the past.

“The typical patient that I see with anxiety is taking [benzodiazepines] well within the green-light zone,” he said. Addiction is an entirely different issue, having to do with a person “essentially falling in love with a chemical high,” he said. “For those people, they’re booze in the form of a pill.”

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