NATURAL SOLUTIONS July/Aug 2008
The too-easy solution
So how did these drugs become so pervasive? At ﬁrst, they seem to offer a cure-all for any type of anxiety. But maskingfeelings isn’t always the smart thing to do. Fear and anxiety,for example, actually perform a valuable function: They keep us out of harm’s way. In the face of a real or perceivedthreat, fear triggers the “ﬁght-or-ﬂight” adrenal response—a normal physiological mechanism designed to keep usalive and safe.Sometimes, however, imagined threats trigger the fear re-sponse over and over again, leading to anxiety disorders. The
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV
lists 12types of anxiety under such categories as phobias, generalizedanxiety, panic disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.All of these conditions can cause extreme psychic andphysical discomfort. Those in the midst of a panic attack,perhaps the most acute manifestation of anxiety, experi-ence a slamming heart, intense sweats, and hyperventila-tion—even the fear of imminent death as the sympathetic(arousing) nervous system overwhelms the parasympathet-ic (calming) response and ﬂoods the body with adrenalineand related noradrenaline hormones.For this type of acute psychological distress, short-termuse of benzos—no more than two weeks—can sometimeshelp, says Ashton. The problem? Many psychiatrists and gen-eral practitioners prescribe benzos (most commonly Ativan,Klonopin, and Xanax) as a ﬁrst-line treatment for everythingfrom muscle pain and insomnia to grief and anxiety—in otherwords, for the vicissitudes of life.An in-depth report by Health Canada (the country’s de-partment of health) titled “The Effects of Tranquilization:Benzodiazepine Use in Canada” summarized the situationbest: “A major factor responsible for the acceptance of thesedrugs has been the pervasive mythology that there are instantsolutions to problems of living and that the most effectiveand rapid solutions are chemical in nature. Society has cometo expect quick responses to any problem, whether it be thecommon cold, anxiety, or grief.” By accepting this philosophy,continues the report, “many people have come to view ben-zodiazepines as essentially a social and recreational drug, notunlike alcohol.”And yet, an established and growing body of research linkslong-term use of these drugs with such serious neurologicaland psychological risks as brain atrophy, emotional anesthesia(a numbing of the emotions), memory impairment, and sui-cidal tendencies.
Let me give you something
Alas, the overprescribing of psychiatric drugs is nothing new.In 1960, Librium, the ﬁrst benzo, hit the market with theslogan: “Whatever the diagnosis—Librium.” This pushedthe idea that common, physiological complaints—asthmas,ulcers, hypertension—were mere manifestations of anxiety.Soon the proto-benzo Valium, later satirized by the RollingStones as “mother’s little helper,” burst on the scene as a safe,nonaddictive solution to stress and an antidote to a woman’sinability to cope.
When tapering off benzos, the following tips will helpsee you through the withdrawal:
Do not push too hard—physically, socially,or emotionally—even when you eel good. Overextending can leadto heightened withdrawal and demoralizing setbacks, says benzosurvivor Alison Kellagher. Your system, she says, wants you to “sitdown and heal.”
Avoid caffeine and sugar.
Patients in benzo with-drawal, says neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, can become hypersen-sitive to the stimulating efects o sugars. Instead, he recommendswhole, organic oods and an intake o “adequate dietary protein” sev-eral times daily, as well as complex carbohydrates (like whole grains),to smooth out blood-sugar levels.
Learn acceptance, patience, andwisdom.
Many have chased dead ends with doctor’s visitsand needless therapy, only to recover ully rom their anxiety issuesonce the withdrawal ended. In withdrawal, “we have to learn to useour minds to calm ourselves—not just our bodies,” says Kellagher.“Looking to the wisdom traditions—yoga, meditation, prayer—isprobably the best place to go.”
According to Perlmutter, exercise—even mild exercise—releases the brain-calming chemical serotonin. So while jumping ona treadmill or stationary bike may seem overwhelming, a short walkis doable even on the worst days. You should walk with “consciousawareness that it’s not just to get rom one place to another, butis a meaningul activity serving an integral role in your recovery,”advises Perlmutter.
Any pleasant diversion, such as acrossword puzzle, phone conversation, or nonviolent movie, willﬁll time and declaw certain withdrawal symptoms. “I took a job ina bakery ﬁve months ater stopping benzos,” says Kellagher. “Thestructured time was really, really helpul.”
Diaphragmatic breathing—drawing breath in throughthe nose and out through the mouth, with a two-second pause ater ex-halation—calms the nervous system. For breathing exercises that easeanxiety, go to naturalsolutionsmag.com and search or
Very light yoga, in a therapeutic yoga class, with a partner, orusing a DVD, will help you eel at peace. Kellagher does yoga with herclients, running through a routine based on grounding movements andthose that bring a sense o saety and security. “It helps people to dothe yoga with someone else, too, to eel connected,” she says.