Anxiety is our country's most common mental health condition. Every year, 40 million American adults – that's more than 18% of the population – develop some form of anxiety disorder. These numbers are rising due to a phenomenon called post-COVID anxiety. In many cases, the standard treatment approach involves prescribing anti-anxiety medications. But there's a lot you may not know about how these drugs negatively impact your brain and body.
What are Anti-Anxiety Medications?
To treat various types of anxiety and panic attacks, many physicians prescribe antidepressants and/or anti-anxiety pills. Some of the most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications include benzodiazepines, often called "benzos" for short. This is a group of drugs that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies as "depressants that produce sedation and hypnosis, relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and reduce seizures." Common prescription brand names are Valium, Xanax, Halcion, Ativan, and Klonopin. But just because these drugs are prescribed by doctors for the treatment of anxiety doesn't mean they're harmless. Here are just a few of the ways they can interfere with the health of your body and brain.
5 Harmful Effects of Anti-Anxiety Medications
Brain Toxicity: Though doctors often prescribe anti-anxiety medications for mental health treatment, these drugs can actually be harmful to the brain. Benzodiazepines not only suppress brain activity, but they can also make the brain look toxic over time. Brain SPECT imaging at Amen Clinics shows that benzodiazepines for anxiety are clearly associated with unhealthy-looking brains. On SPECT scans, overall decreased blood flow to the brain is commonly seen with benzo use. Low blood flow is the number-one brain imaging predictor that an individual will eventually develop Alzheimer's disease.
Addictive and Prone to Misuse: Benzodiazepines are frequently abused because they slow the nervous system and lead to a more relaxed state. This misuse can lead to a host of problems, including amnesia, hostility, irritability, and vivid or disturbing dreams. Overdoses are also a possibility, and deaths from overdoses involving benzos have quadrupled from 2002 to 2015. Taking benzos in combination with other depressants, such as alcohol and/or sleeping pills, increases the chances of overdose.
Dementia Risk: Some studies have suggested that long-term use of benzodiazepines is strongly associated with an increased risk of dementia. Additionally, a 2019 analysis found that using benzodiazepines for long periods of time increased the likelihood of developing dementia by over 50%. Research has shown that benzodiazepines damage brain cells, which can lead to cognitive decline.
Treatment-Resistant Depression: Mental health issues commonly occur in tandem, and some individuals experience treatment-resistant depression when using anxiety medications. Benzodiazepine use has been significantly associated with higher instances of treatment-resistant depression.
Nutrient Deficiencies: Anxiety disorder medications have been linked to nutrient deficiencies. Patients taking these medications are more likely to experience deficiencies in essential nutrients, such as vitamin D, melatonin, folate, calcium, and various B vitamins. Nutrient deficiencies can worsen mental health issues and increase the risk of attempting or dying by suicide.
Natural Alternatives to Anxiety Medication:
Fortunately, there are many ways to tackle anxiety disorders that do not require potentially addictive and harmful medications. Free and easy methods include meditation, prayer, deep breathing, and mindful, slow movement activities like qi gong, yoga, or tai chi. Nutritional supplements like GABA, L-theanine, and magnesium, as well as a nutrient-packed, healthy diet, can also help manage anxiety.
For clinical intervention, neurofeedback or hypnosis (clinical hypnotherapist, Mindy McHenry) can work to calm an active mind. Consulting with a mental health professional who offers brain imaging and lab testing to rule out other potential medical conditions that may be contributing to anxiety is critical. The right combination of medication-free treatment techniques can work wonders for many people who want to keep anxiety in check. Work with your mental health professional to find the right anti-anxiety program for you.
In conclusion, while anxiety is a widespread issue, the use of anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines comes with serious potential drawbacks. It's important to consider natural alternatives and seek professional guidance to address anxiety without risking the negative effects associated with these medications. Your mental and physical health should always be a top priority when tackling anxiety-related challenges.