About 40 million Americans over the age of 18 suffer from an anxiety disorder in a given year. This averages to about18 percent of adults who deal with an issue of anxiety, often with co-occurring disorders like depression. One of the most common ways that people seek relief from their anxiety is through medications Xanax and other benzodiazepines that provide them a feeling of calm in times of distress.
These types of drugs can be highly effective at easing anxiety symptoms but they also use the same potentially addictive “reward pathways” as drugs like heroin. With anxiety being the enormous problem that it is in the U.S., it is not surprising that many people are becoming addicted to their anxiety medication and end up with a dual diagnosis of both a mental illness and addiction.
Dopamine Levels and Anxiety Medication
People who don’t know how to deal with their anxiety and are not receiving the help they need from psychotherapy may resort to overuse of prescription medication to ease their symptoms. While anxiety medications like Xanax or Ativan can be useful for people with truly severe symptoms of anxiety, there is a fine line that patients must be careful not to cross in order to avoid their addictive powers.
Pharmaceutical drugs in the form of benzodiazepines are addictive because they exert a calming effect on the brain through boosting action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid which is the same process that occurs in addictive drugs like opioids. The action of this neurotransmitter in turn activates the gratification hormone, dopamine, or the feel good chemical that often is involved in addiction. People with higher levels of dopamine in the brain tend to be more prone to addictive behavior.
Alternatives to Addictive Drugs
Pharmaceutical drugs are rarely the best long-term solution for treating a mental disorder like anxiety because it can only temporarily alleviate symptoms. In spite of the popularity of anxiety medications, research has shown that the two most successful treatments for anxiety disorders are psychotherapy and behavioral therapy.
Most people’s symptoms of anxiety improve with techniques such as breathing exercises and small increments of exposure to the things that cause anxiety. Therapy can also help people with anxiety learn how to handle the situations that cause them feelings of fear and insecurity. Sessions in psychotherapy can also help people understand what is at the root of their anxiety such as childhood trauma or issues of self-esteem.
Resolving issues from the past can help ease some of the anxiety that people experience in their daily life. Even though therapy is the best option, many people resort to the quick fix of prescription drugs to feel better immediately. While medication can be helpful in the short term or for certain instances like panic disorder, it does work as a long-term solution for anxiety.
The abuse of prescription drugs has become a serious epidemic in the U.S. with many people developing issues with opioids and benzodiazepines like Xanax. Rates of abuse of prescription drugs have increased dramatically in recent years and have surpassed the abuse of other illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. While many people may be using anxiety medication with no symptoms of the mental disorder, there are still a number of individuals who have become hooked on the medication they use for a legitimate mental illness.
Although anxiety represents a major challenge, relying on addictive medication can be a slippery slope for people that may already be vulnerable to developing a substance abuse problem. Being cautious about medication and focusing on psychotherapy as a solution can help prevent people from developing a dual diagnosis.