Jenny Taitz at The Wall Street Journal recently released an essay on the addictive effects of benzodiazepines, which are found in drugs such as Klonopin, Ativan, and Xanax. The depressant is prescribed to more than 92 million people in the US, often to individuals experiencing anxiety or severe insomnia.
Benzodiazepines are known to be addictive. Researchers estimate that between 20-100% of patients that take the drug will eventually experience withdrawal symptoms, including patients prescribed even lower doses, with 23% becoming addicted after 3 months of use.
Benzodiazepines amplify a neurotransmitter called GABA, also known as the “learning chemical”. Many studies have found a link between levels of GABA and success in learning or memorising. GABA influences the excitability of neurons through an inhibitory effect that blocks signals sent to the nervous system. This produces the sensation in patients that many would describe as “quieting their bodies and minds”.
The main issue, as described by Taitz, is “ …that when you start taking a benzo, the brain reduces its natural output of GABA, which means that tapering off the medication can result in even worse symptoms of anxiety.” In more extreme cases, “...excessive benzo use can also cause aggressiveness and poor judgement and increase the risk of dementia in the long term.”
In the consolidation period of learning, new neuronal networks are formed through the learning chemical. There has been conflicting evidence on the correlation between Benzodiazepine use and dementia, but a study published in the Journal of Clinical Neurology by Quian He and her research team found that the association is stronger when people use long-acting Benzodiazepines for a long duration.
Dr. Tola T’Sarumi, an addiction psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, prescribes short-acting benzodiazepines with a taper period to ensure that patients are off the medication before they depart from the hospital. After months or years of use, the risk of complications and dangers increase. Dr T’Sarumi explains, “...and so you increase it again and keep increasing it…. and then you begin to realise that you can’t live without it.”
Arthur Robin Williams of Columbia University says, “Anything that quickly changes how someone feels is going to have abuse liability.” Prescribed medications that are commonly abused alongside benzodiazepines include Opioids, Vicodin, and stimulants like Adderall.
Instead of treating the root cause of anxiety or exploring “healthier emotional regulation techniques”, benzodiazepines simply mask the symptoms of these feelings. Drug-free techniques such as meditation have been found to improve emotional regulation by activating GABA neurotransmission; similarly, methods like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) can teach patients alternative coping mechanisms, which help to decrease anxiety.
For therapy to be effective, Nicolas Garel, MD reported in the Journal of Psychiatry that a personalised approach for each patient is most beneficial.
Edited By Sydney Smith
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