According to the American Psychiatry Association, American adults are experiencing more anxiety than ever before. In a new study by the American Psychiatric Organization, 39% of those polled reported they were more anxious than they were at this time last year.
Anxiety disorders affect 260 billion people worldwide, says the World Health Organization. And the most common way that doctors treat anxiety is by prescribing benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are a class of medicines known as sedative-hypnotics. The most common benzodiazepines are Lorazepam, Valium and Xanax. In theory, benzodiazepines, when taken during an acute episode of anxiety or a panic attack, induce relaxation as well as reduce stress and worry.
Benzodiazepines work by interacting with neurotransmitters in the brain. One such neurotransmitter is called GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid. GABA has an inhibitory function; it tends to slow down neuron firing. Benzodiazepines bind to receptors in the brain and spinal cord, intensifying the effects of GABA. Essentially, it tells your brain to slow down, relieving anxiety symptoms.
But they are also heavily addictive, both physically and psychologically. And a recent study found that, not only have prescriptions for benzodiazepines have more than tripled but, fatal overdoses have more than quadrupled in the past 20 years.
According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines increased from 1,135 in 1999, to 8,791 in 2015. In 2013, benzodiazepines were involved in 31% of the estimated 22,767 deaths from prescription drug overdose in the United States.
Because benzodiazepines lose their therapeutic anti-anxiety effect after four to six months of regular use, users must use more or suffer withdrawal. Sudden withdrawal can cause weight loss, heart palpitations, headache, muscular pain and stiffness, hallucinations, seizures, psychosis, and suicide. It is advisable to withdraw from benzodiazepines under the close supervision of a doctor.
As rates of anxiety climb, we must look to other ways of dealing with what is an epidemic. And while prescription medications can offer some relief, they are obviously not a long term solution if their use results in dependence. Some studies also point to drugs such as benzodiazepines causing long-term neurotransmitter and brain damage. In 1982, the Medical Research Council of England stated there should be large-scale studies to examine the long-term impact of benzodiazepines after research by a leading psychiatrist showed brain shrinkage in some patients. But no study was done and the files were sealed.
Treating anxiety without benzodiazepines can be done successfully. If you are suffering from anxiety, you have options. They may not be as simple as taking a pill but they are as effective, have few – if any – side effects, and can be used long-term without damage to your body and brain.
You’ve probably heard that exercise can improve mood. But exercise is actually beneficial for anxiety. Study after study points to not only a reduction of symptoms for hours immediately after aerobic exercise, but a reduction of symptoms over time if exercise is regular and consistent. Although aerobic exercise is beneficial for many anxiety sufferers, a regular yoga practice (that could also include mindfulness meditation) also offers relief.
While there doesn’t appear to be a direct cause and effect relationship between levels of sunlight and anxiety, many people do appear to experience relief from anxiety with regular exposure to sunlight. Additionally, anxiety-related disorders and panic attacks have also been linked with changing seasons and reduced sunlight. More studies need to be done. But we should also consider that more sunlight translates into more time in nature. According to the NYU Langone Medical Center, regular exposure to nature reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety.
Reducing screen time
Overuse of smartphones has been linked to a decrease of the neurotransmitter GABA, which can lead to anxiety. And constant use of smartphones and mobile devices simply makes it more difficult for our brains to process information or form long-term memories, leading to a higher incidence of stress. A reduction of screen time will also result in a reduction in insomnia, often experienced by those suffering from anxiety.
Kava has been used for generations as a traditional remedy for anxiety. The root of the kava plant, or piper methysticum (which translates to ‘intoxicating pepper’) is typically used by cultures in these areas to make a tea which. When consumed, in either tea or powdered form, kava interferes with norepinephrine reuptake and binds with GABA receptors, which modulate anxiety. A review of 11 controlled double-blind studies with over 600 patients concluded that kava was superior to placebo for the short-term management of generalized anxiety. Only the kava root should be consumed as the leaves and stems contain toxic alkaloids. Be sure to purchase an organic, sustainably grown product from a reputable source, such as AVA.
Abstaining from alcohol
People often drink alcohol to manage symptoms of anxiety. But drinking alcohol can actually cause anxiety, creating a vicious loop of drinking and suffering. A study done by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine showed that excessive drinking may lead to a ‘rewiring’ of the brain – this rewiring can make an individual more susceptible to the development of anxiety. Although there are few studies linking giving up alcohol and reduction of anxiety, a simple Google search brings up a plethora of anecdotal evidence to support it as a viable option.
It is up to each of us to be responsible for our mental health. While there is nothing wrong with using the medical system to get support, addictive prescription medications should be considered only as a last resort. You only get one body and one brain – protect, care for, and nurture them in the best way you can and you will be sure to see long term benefit.