Xanax Worsens Anxiety and Panic

First posted 12/13/2012
Anxiety is one of the most common presenting complaints for people who come to my psychiatric practice. By the time people with anxiety visit a psychiatrist, they have usually discussed their symptoms with friends and family members, and some have been to their family care physician. And as a result of these initial ‘consultations’, they often have been recommended or prescribed valium-type medications like Xanax or Klonopin— a class of chemicals known as ‘benzodiazepines.’
There have also been several highly publicized deaths from combining pain pills with benzodiazepines. The medications are commonly prescribed, and there are a number of misconceptions among laypeople about their proper use. I’ve written about this class of medications in the past, but given the frequency that they are prescribed and mis-prescribed, the topic deserves another visit.
Most experienced doctors have learned to cringe every time a patient says the word “anxiety,” knowing that in all likelihood they are in a lose/lose position. Why lose/lose? Because the experienced doctor knows that the options are to do the right thing and disappoint their patient, or do the wrong thing and struggle with the consequences of their actions for months or years.
A primary reason for the lose/lose proposition is that the non-medical community associates SSRI’s like Prozac or Zoloft with antidepressants, and believes that the proper treatments for anxiety disorders are sedatives like Valium or Xanax. But in reality, sedatives are useful in some situations, for example acute or short-term anxiety. But for chronic anxiety, the proper treatment consists of SSRIs or closely-related SNRIs.
Today a new patient requested treatment of her addiction to pain medications. When I asked about other symptoms, she said that she takes alprazolam and clonazepam for anxiety and panic attacks. I explained that those medications are dangerous for opioid addicts, and are intended for short-term use. She assured me that the milligram of alprazolam she is taking doesn’t even do anything, intending to inform me that her medications are not potent enough to worry about. But I took her assurances the opposite way—that she has taken benzodiazepines to the point where even very large doses of the medications have little effect because of ‘tolerance.’
She then said she also has attention deficit disorder and takes amphetamine. I explained that she is doing herself a disservice by taking both amphetamines and benzodiazepines, since benzodiazepines CAUSE attention problems; in fact, that is how they work! Anxiety essentially consists of too much attention to a problem or a fear. Benzodiazepines treat anxiety by preventing the brain from attending, attaching and remembering.
Anesthesiologists and dentists use the short-acting benzodiazepine midazolam during uncomfortable procedures to block memory. Most adults have had the experience of watching an anesthetic medication injected into the IV tubing, and next waking up to people saying “you’re OK—it’s all done.” For minor procedures they experience a loss of memory, not a loss of consciousness. They transfer to the OR table when asked, but have no recall of doing so because of the benzodiazepine’s effects. I repeatedly tell students in my university practice to avoid benzodiazepines, if nervous about an important exam. Amnesia and studying don’t mix!
The patient described above said that she takes stimulants for attention deficit disorder. Beyond amnesia, it is simply a bad idea to take two polar-opposite medications as this patient is doing. Stimulants cause wakefulness, attention, tight muscles, and anxiety. Benzos cause drowsiness, amnesia, relaxation, and the inability to remember what you were supposed to worry about. Instead of taking both, take neither.
A related question came to me by e-mail yesterday:
Hello, I found your website and see that you do phone consultations. I have been having anxiety problems and attacks for over a year. It has gotten worse and worse. I’ve been to the doctors in my area but no one wants to treat me for it…they just want to keep giving me Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Cymbalta and all these things I’ve tried and nothing seems to be helping me. I have anxiety attacks all the time where my heart beats out of my chest and I can’t breathe and go almost into this blackout stage. I have a lot of things that trigger it; one is my anxiousness all the time. I can’t focus, and any little dilemma sets me off. Everything is a crisis to me. And on top of that, I have the responsibility to take care of a 3 year old all by myself. I’m so scattered and anxious and upset all the time it is affecting me being a good mother. I cannot take it anymore and I am at the end of my rope. I don’t know what to do; no one will treat me with anything to calm me down along with the Paxil because of all the other people in this county that have abused it. I DO NOT know what else to do. I have no one to talk to or turn to. It’s affecting my job, my personal life and my life in general. If you can’t help me maybe you know someone who will.
The person doesn’t come right out and say it, but her comments about needing to be calmed down and about abuse of meds by others suggest that she is asking for a benzodiazepine.
Benzodiazepines include long-acting medications like clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam (Valium), intermediate-acting medications like lorazepam (Ativan) and alprazolam (Xanax), and the short-acting sleeping pills from my training years like triazolam (Halcion) and temazepam (Restoril). As an anesthesiologist, I gave patients midazolam (Versed) more than any other medication. All of these medications are appropriate in certain settings. Most have a street value. Some have active metabolites that accumulate in the body over time. All are sedating, all cause tolerance, and all have the potential to cause significant withdrawal symptoms. The longer-acting medications will self-taper to some extent, but the intermediate-acting agents in particular have the potential to cause withdrawal syndromes that are severe, and even fatal. The first patient I mentioned has been taking an anticonvulsant since presenting to the ER with a grand mal seizure while stopping Xanax “cold turkey.”
All of these medications have appropriate uses, almost always for short-term conditions. When given long-term, they cause problems. In fact, from the top of my head, I can think of 12 reasons to avoid prescribing benzos for “anxiety.” Let’s run through the list of 12 things, just in time for Christmas—and don’t forget to check it twice!

  1. Many anxious patients aren’t truly anxious. When a patient complains of anxiety, he or she is often complaining of something else. If I ask a patient to describe the symptoms without using the word anxiety, I often find that the patient is bored, restless, angry, depressed, overwhelmed, or appropriately frightened. Take a look at the second patient—the one who is “scattered,” “at the end of her rope,” and “caring for a 3-year-old boy all by herself.” Do you really think she will be a better mom if she is taking alprazolam or clonazepam? She is feeling overwhelmed, angry, tired, afraid, hopeless, depressed—feelings that when added together become ‘anxiety.’ Do we really want to give a person in this condition a medication that will make her sleepier, more forgetful, more scattered, and more disinhibited?
  2. Even if the medication is truly helpful, her relief will be short-lived due to tolerance. The human body quickly adjusts to benzodiazepines (and many other medications) so that a continued effect requires a higher and higher dose. Patients often escalate their dose at some point, no matter how many times they promise that they won’t. Dose escalation is not the patient’s fault; it is simply what these meds do. Dose escalation is difficult to control, once it has begun; patients will call two weeks into a month prescription to report that they are out of alprazolam, and the doctor feels pressured to issue a refill to prevent withdrawal.
  3. Benzodiazepines turn manageable anxiety into an anxiety disorder. Patients get a calming effect from the medication, but as the medication wears off, the anxiety returns, including extra anxiety from a rebound effect—a miniature form of withdrawal. Patients do not usually attribute that anxiety to rebound, but instead believe they have a horrible anxiety condition that appears as soon as the medication wears off. When I worked in a maximum security prison for women in Wisconsin, many inmates were taking benzodiazepines upon arrival. Several months later, the most amazing thing happened: the anxiety disorders went away!
  4. A problem specific to patients with addictions is that rather than take sedative medications to achieve the absence of anxiety, they take the medication until they feel relaxed. In other words, instead of seeking normalcy; they seek relaxation. There is a difference between the two states! The mistaken goal is simply a consequence of the conditioning process during addiction. People with addictions don’t often realize that they are seeking ‘fuzziness’— a feeling that people without addictive histories often find uncomfortable.
  5. Again specific to people with addictions, benzodiazepines (like other medications that have an immediate psychotropic effect) direct the person’s attention inward. People with addictions are overly aware of how they feel; a goal in treatment is to get the addict out of his or her own head to experience life on life’s terms. Benzodiazepines encourage the opposite effect, encouraging the addict to focus on internal feelings and sensations.
  6. People with addictions who favor one class of drugs, for example opiates, will often move to a different substance when the first drug of choice is removed. This phenomenon is called “cross addiction.”
  7. A final concern for people with addictions is that benzodiazepines help preserve the mistaken thought that the person cannot function without taking something.
  8. Benzodiazepines impair driving and working with dangerous machinery. And patients get anxious at work too—making the medications a poor choice. They also make a person appear intoxicated by causing slurred speech, forgetfulness, and sometimes loopy behavior, risking the person’s job and having other unforeseen consequences. Some people have completely different personalities when disinhibited by benzodiazepines.
  9. Benzodiazepines have been linked to fetal anomalies and early miscarriage.
  10. They destroy sleep in the long run through tolerance and through rebound effects. If the patient takes a benzodiazepine during the day, he or she will go to bed just as the sedation is wearing off. The alternative is to take the medication at bedtime, defeating the goal of finding relief for daytime anxiety. If the person takes benzodiazepines both day and night, tolerance increases even more quickly.
  11. I have already mentioned the need to taper off benzodiazepines and the risk of seizures (and worse) during withdrawal.
  12. Benzodiazepines may calm an anxious person, but they do not generally increase function. A person who can’t get out of bed becomes less likely to get out of bed. Bills that are unpaid become even less likely to be paid. Relationships do not generally improve when one partner is nodding off as the other talks about feelings!

I do prescribe benzodiazepines, usually for short-term or intermittent use. Some patients do fine with them, but for others, benzodiazepines are a Pandora’s Box that is best not opened. As a psychiatrist, I often see treatment plans that lead to a mess that I must try to clean up—such as the case with the first patient I mentioned. I think most doctors who read this will understand what I am saying, and many will have similar thoughts about benzodiazepines. Perhaps others will find the use of benzodiazepine much more beneficial than harmful; comments are welcome!
Addendum:  Since the original post, a large British study showed a higher death rate in patients who have been on chronic benzodiazepine therapy, and a more recent study showed a link between benzodiazepine treatment and the later development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Are you ANXIOUS? Are you SURE?

I’ve been posting more lately, but I’m hoping to slow down by the end of the holidays to let everyone catch up.   I’ve also mentioned ‘my book’ several times in the past year, promising to myself and to others deadline that comes and go.  I wish I could take a month and work on it full-time, but I don’t see much chance of that happening… so I’ll have to just keep chipping away at it.  I can be a perfectionist and everything can be worded just a little better…  I’m the same way some mornings with my electric razor, until  my wife gets sick of watching me ‘make it perfect’ and takes the razor from me.  I came across an article the other day that described a form of OCD that involves exactly that behavior– so at least I know the nature of my problem! 
I want to thank those of you who responded to the ‘here to help’ post, and please, if anyone else has had positive or negative experiences with the Here to Help program run by Reckitt-Benckiser,  let me know.  You don’t have to report anything ‘profound’– just a general comment or two whether it was helpful, whether you stuck with it, etc.
I have written about benzos a number of times and I still have more to say.  I would hope that everyone is familiar with the danger of respiratory depression when combining benzos and opiates.  Most of the deaths involving buprenorphine that I have reviewed or read about had two things in common.  First, the person took buprenorphine along with a second respiratory depressant– often a benzodiazepine, but alcohol acts at the same receptor sites as benzos and so alcohol has similar dangers.  The other commonality is that the person who died was not ‘tolerant’ to high doses of opiates, benzos, or both.    I do not want to say anything that puts addicts at risk, and I am NOT condoning benzo use, particularly the use of medications that are not prescribed by your addiction doc.  Doing so will eventually destroy you– but for the opiate/benzo combination to kill someone quickly generally requires that the person is not tolerant to one or the other chemical.  THIS IS NOT SOMETHING TO RELY ON TO AVOID DEATH!  Did I make myself clear?   Understand that the danger of combining opiates and benzos is not greater than the risk of combining benzos with opiate agonists.  There is nothing ‘more dangerous’ about buprenorphine EXCEPT the false sense of safety that users may have about buprenorphine.  But other than that false sense of safety, combining a pure opiate agonist with a benzo is MORE dangerous than combining similar potencies of buprenorphine with the same benzo.
I wanted to get that issue out of the way so that I could get to the main danger for addicts on buprenorphine when taking benzos, i.e the long-term effects on sobriety.  Opiate addicts will become actively addicted to other drugs when opiate addiction is prevented if no efforts are made to change.    I have written about my opinion that ‘standard AODA counseling’ is not the best fit for many people.  But that does NOT mean that change is not required.   At the very least the addict must find a way to fill the time spent using, and find a way to tolerate the harsh glare of reality when the mind is not constantly occupied with using, coming down, craving, or regretting the use of opiates.   I have had many patiens go through an initial ‘happy honemoon’ stage, and several months later struggle with all of the feelings that were being held at bay by preoccupation with opiates.   That preoccupation burns off a great deal of emotional energy, and suddenly our minds have plenty of time to worry about OTHER things!   There is also the fact that many of us used to dull our feelings and our reactions to life’s challenges.  So opiate addicts often compain of ‘anxiety’ early in buprenorphine maintenance, as they experience unpleasant feelings that should really be considered plain old cravings rather than an anxiety disorder.  I’ve written about what people say when I ask them to describe their ‘anxiety– they feel edgy, there is nothing to do, they are pacing, restless– they sound more bored than ‘anxious!’   But right now, for the sake of  the argument I will accept that some addicts are having real ‘anxiety.’  This is a big thing to accept, since anxiety is fear, and the people with anxiety are generally not the ones taking on new challenges, but rather tend to be the people who are doing nothing but playing video games all day… so I’m not sure where the ‘fear’ is coming from.  But even so– if that person was in residential treatment (before the days of buprenorphine) and complained of anxiety, every counselor would say ‘poor baby…. how HORRIBLE that you feel so ANXIOUS!  And so UNIQUE–  why, nobody has EVER felt like THAT before!!’
Do you get my point?  Sorry to be such an ass about it, but we are dealing with a fatal illness here.  Before buprenorphine, addicts would avoid narcotics after surgery in efforts to avoid risking relapse– now with buprenorphine, some people want to take the easiest way that they can find.  I will tell you straight up– if you are on the verge of finding stability on buprenorphine, you are extremely blessed.  Many people have died before you from opiate dependence, without the opportunity to improve their odds with buprenorphine.  You must do SOME tough things— and one is to learn to deal with life on life’s terms.  If you cannot do that, your chances for avoiding using–even with buprenorphine– are low.   Yes, for a time you are going to be ‘anxious’, or dysphoric, or whatever you want to call it.  You haven’t dealt with life lately, so of course it will be a tough adjustment!  But what do you expect– that you can just be numb and relaxed the whole time, and everything will just fall into place?
People with cancer deal with extreme pain, nausea, surgeries, deformity of body parts…  YOU must deal with your ‘anxiety.’   Why?  It is hard to explain to people who have not been through residential treatment, where a person at least learns some things about what addiction is all about.  Addiction is complicated, and occurs for many reasons– there is not ‘one reason’ for being and staying an actively using addict.  One reason relevant to the benzo issue, though, is that addicts become very aware of their own physical discomfort– we become ‘big babies’, basically.  Benzos only make this worse;  the addict in early recovery feels uncomfortable about many things, and having a pill to take when things get bad enough only makes the addict look inward even more often to decide whether things are  bad enough to deserve a Klonopin.   Another reason people stay addicted is because of distortions of insight, specifically losing the ability to predict what they will do in the future.  The addict says ‘I will take it only for severe anxiety’, but after a few days the addict finds that there is ALWAYS a reason to take another dose of a benzos.  Addicts didn’t know life was so tough until benzos became available, when suddenly EVERYTHING seems like a severe situation–  snowed in, new coworker, lost job, getting a new job, a first date, a break-up, an NA meeting… ALL of these things are great reasons for Klonopin!!
Another problem for addicts taking benzos is that when addicts take a benzo for ‘anxiety’, they don’t focus on the disappearance of their anxiety– they focus on the appearance of the ‘buzz’ from the benzo.  ‘Normal’ people hate that feeling, and so they find benzos to be too sedating or too impairing.   But addicts LOVE that feeling– any feeling– and so they dose until they feel it– not until the anxiety is gone.  And that extra ‘dosing for feeling,’ combined with the fast tolerance  characteristic of benzos, leads to rapid escalation of dose.  And what a surprise– that dose escalation even occurs in people who say ‘don’t worry doc– I don’t plan to raise the dose.’
I realize I’m expressing anger with this post, but hey, I have to express it somewhere!  Part of my anger comes from the repeated behavior of addicts– behaviors that I resent that will always remain within myself as well.  I realize my anger is for the addiction, not for the person suffering from the addiction… but sometimes I am frustrated by the unwillingness of addicts who are at the edge of relapse to ‘step up’ and face the challenges, and to fight for their lives.  I was also angry at what happened on a TV show this AM as I was getting dressed.   I shouldn’t admit this… but I was watching MTV, the show about the teens who became pregnant and had babies, which is now a show about teen moms… and one of the teen moms went to the doctor and complained of her ‘anxiety’.  She is young, bored, stuck at home with a crying baby… and she has ‘anxiety.’ Some mornings she ‘just lays in bed and doesn’t want to get up.’   What a surprise that she isn’t just thrilled to get up every morning!  She sees a doc (who could pass for a beetle if he had the right markings on his back) and the doc prescribes… Klonopin.  The next morning the baby is fussing and the teen mom holds the baby at arms’ length, passes him to her BF, and says ‘I have to take my Klonopins.’   A close shot of the bottle shows instructions to take ‘one tab twice per day’ (clonazepam has a half-life of about 24 hours, so the level in her body will increase over several days to a high steady-state level).  The next camera shot the next day shows her laying on the couch, yawning, saying that the medication seems to be working.  Her one-yr-old, meanwhile, is… somewhere….  not sure where I left him… 
But at least she isn’t ‘anxious’!
I went off on something that I was only going to mention in passing… so I guess I’ll finish the story I intended to write in a few days.  I want to write about a couple studies that looked at the cognitive effects of buprenorphine, methadone, and benzos.  Thanks for letting me vent…    good luck returning to work tomorrow for those of us lucky enough to be working, and I hope those who are looking find somethng soon.
JJ