Anxiety is on the rise.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) anxiety disorders are the most common mood disorder in the U.S, affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.
The latest statistic shows close to 48 million prescriptions written out for Xanax (an anxiolytic) or alprazolam (the cheap, generic equivalent) every year. That's more than one prescription every second. (1)
Since 2006, the number of people admitted to drug treatment centers in the US for sedative or tranquilizer use has more than tripled. (2)
This increase correlates with a similar increase in legal prescriptions written for Xanax and other forms of anxiolytics over the same time period, suggesting that the increase in legal availability of these medications is indirectly fueling their abuse. (3)
An estimated 14.7 percent of Americans ages 21 to 34 have taken tranquilizers without a prescription or even recreationally, according to 2012 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
According to a Washington Post analysis “Between 1999 and 2014, the number of middle-aged white women dying annually from opiate overdoses shot up 400 percent”. Anti- anxiety drugs, often prescribed in tandem with opioids were shown to contribute to this staggering increase. (4)
Between 2005 and 2011, the estimated number of emergency room visits involving non-medical use of alprazolam more than doubled, from 57,000 in 2005 to 124,000 in 2011. (5)
Those are jaw-dropping and worrisome statistics.
Anxiolytics may help some people, some of the time, but they are not a panacea.
Nearly 50 million anxiolytics prescriptions are written yearly, a booming market I think we can say, but americans seem increasingly anxious. Or increasingly addicted to anxiolytics? Possibly both. While short-term use of these medications is considered “safe and effective”, long-term use is controversial because of the potential for so many adverse effects (6). The long term use of benzodiazepines (a class of drugs primarily used for treating anxiety, such as Xanax, Klonopin, Valium...) has been shown to worsen sleep, increase anxiety, impair long-term memory, psychomotor and visuo-motor abilities. They notoriously lead to tolerance, dependance and abuse. (7) Use of prescribed benzodiazepines is associated with an increased rate of attempted and completed suicide. (8) Weaning oneself off benzos comes with its own set of symptoms: insomnia, gastric problems, tremors, agitation, muscle spasms, flu-like symptoms. Less frequently: depersonalization, derealization, hypersensitivity to stimuli, depression, suicidal behavior, psychosis, seizures. (9)
I'll stop here for now.
Can we say such drugs are healing remedies? No.
Is it time we have a deeper conversation about anxiety? Yes.
A better way?
To reiterate, anxiolytics may help some people short-term, some of the time, but a long term solution to anxiety they are not. Anyone interested in more than symptom alleviation, interested in long-term, sustainable healing will need to inquire deeper and ask questions.
Most importantly, why are we feeling anxious? Understanding the cause of an imbalance is essential if we are to direct our healing effort appropriately and efficiently.
Is it actually possible to heal anxiety, not just manage its symptoms? This is the difference between the holistic and allopathic systems of medicine. But they are not mutually exclusive, hence the emergence of integrative medicine.
Could we heal anxiety in a way that makes the whole person feel better (i.e. without adverse side effects)?
Or rather, could having a person-centric approach to healing generate only positive effects?
Meaty questions if you ask me! I will strive to answer them in my next fews posts. Stay tuned!